Rushford council listens to annual review, hears concerns about small-town libraries

By : 
Kathleen Lynn
Tri-County Record

Elizabeth Wefel, Attorney and Lobbyist from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC), addressed the Rushford City Council at its July 9 meeting. Mayor Hallum and all council members were present. 

Wefel presented an annual review of the various projects and areas of concern that affect Minnesota cities and how these have been impacted by recent MN State Legislative actions. The 2017 legislative session had left many wondering if Governor Dayton and the State Legislature would be able to work together for 2018 to get things done. This made the CGMC “determined that ensuring the passage of a robust bonding bill would be its top priority.” This would put more money into waste water treatment programs and regulatory reforms. Cities need more of this money as facilities age and growth occurs. The CGMC advocated for Public Facilities Authority water infrastructure grant and loan programs.

The final bonding bill for was signed into law by Governor Dayton. This made $123 million available for infrastructure grants and loans. This was a highlight of the 2018 legislative session for the CGMC. This left all funding for wastewater programs intact. Governor Dayton has been supportive with some of the projects and issues the CGMC has been working on. Some CGMC’s projects had been “combined” with other programs into the “Omnibus Bill” (by others) which consisted of almost 1,000 pages. Governor Dayton vetoed the bill as it was “too many were lumped together, and small cities would also suffer”. The Governor’s other concerns about the bill were over lack of funding and who would see tax breaks according to the CGMC. Wefel stated that “the Governor stood up and took notice of the need for money was needed.” Attorney Wefel also noted on numerous occasions that bi-partisan support was present for several projects that would benefit the Minnesota cities.

Wefel stated that some of CGMC’s thirteen successes for the year formed a type of “waste water bill of rights for communities”. This was an instructional guide, including (amongst other things) how to challenge Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) decisions. She also stated that another of CGMC’s successes was “to oppose and defeat a constitutional amendment to dedicate money to a specific purpose. When money gets tight, this would then get re-purposed”. This money would have had to have come out of the General Fund and originally gone towards Transportation, then go elsewhere instead. Instead of the amendment, CGMC worked towards finding money for city streets.

One of the challenges CGMC faces is finding groups to providing funding for waste water repairs, etc. for cities that currently have facilities that are not meeting their needs under current funding that is available. Program limitations often leave cities struggling to afford upgrades/repairs that are needed and/or required. To help in these situations, there is language in the newly passed bonding bill that lies a foundation that may help pass a supplemental grant program in the future. The CGMC is already working on a second program to help cities to get additional funding. The CGMC is holding multiple hearings to get the word out on funding issues these cities are facing.

Looking forward to the 2019 legislative session, the CGMC is trying to get attention to Local Government Aid (LGA), city streets, access to child care, workforce housing, drinking water issues, and continued funding for water infrastructure. Childcare, as well as the lack of quality childcare, is especially pressing for many families. CGMC is working on ways to try to institute supplemental grant programs, fund training programs, upgrade/expand existing childcare facilities, and various funding to increase availability of childcare.

Upcoming elections may affect these projects and concerns, so these ways were also briefly discussed. Packets from CGMC are going out to all candidates for the upcoming elections to inform them of the issues. Gubernatorial candidate forums will take place. The upcoming CGMC Summer Conference in Mankato has scheduled three of the five candidates already scheduled to appear. Rushford Mayor Chris Hallum and the entire city council are invited to the summer conference, with another conference scheduled in the fall in Alexandria.

Wefel thanked the Mayor and Council for participating in this CGMC, before concluding her report. 

Value of municipal libraries 

City Administrator Tony Chladek brought up the topic of the importance of libraries and their value to communities following some recent discussions and emails he has been involved with. Libraries do more than house books; they also keep data and records on practically everything. Fillmore County is home to seven libraries, which receive the majority of their funding from their home city, but are used by people from all over.

Chladek presented an email and chart concerning the county’s libraries, noting “These libraries need everyone’s support. They are not extravagant. Often volunteers help operate them. Everyone in the county needs to contact their representatives all across the county to let them know how much the libraries mean to them, how important the libraries’ services are, and how much we need to support them. One such representative is Randy Dahl. 

“The Comparison of City and County Financial Support for Library Operations 2017” shows various data on the users and funding. This shows that the cities are doing more of the use and funding than the County. The 2017 Circulation figures show 59.78% were city residents, 40.22% came from the county. However, the majority of the financial support for the libraries is 73.97% of City Funding with 26.03% coming from the county. With the combined total funding of $859,726.00, it breaks down that the 59.78% City Funding comes to $513,917.82, whereas the 40.22% County Funding is $345,808.00. Currently, Fillmore County libraries need more money to adequately operate. Council O’Donnell pointed out that “people from Winona and Houston also use the libraries.” Councilor Benson explained “That is where things get complicated…The timetable needed for the equalization goal to be reached would be unrealistic.”

Council members asked about the exact cost to each taxpayer for an example.  Administrator Chladek responded ‘the figures needed to be broken down so as to see where we are at and where we need to be.” To increase funding to the Fillmore County libraries and/or equalization in the funding, more information is needed so that county and city residents know how much that will mean to them when broken down. Councilor Ryman also asked, “What more needs to be done to make the libraries better, maintainable, and grow?

Chladek replied “More work on it is needed. More dialogue is needed” and added, “Residents need to realize the year. I shared the numbers and operational costs. Are they exorbitant? When is the last time you visited a library? Most operate on a shoestring, are not extravagant. We need to lobby our other representatives and partner closer.”

Residents were urged to contact their representatives to show their support of libraries and their continuing financial support.

Reports and updates

Progress is being made in the selection for a replacement City Attorney. Proposals from attorneys for the position have been received and are being examined. The current City Attorney’s term will be expiring at the end of July and a replacement needs to be named by then.

Councilors Benson and Ryman discussed the recent contact from a non-resident who wants to volunteer their services for weeding and landscaping projects around the city. After discussion, the Councilors suggested the development of a list of names of possible volunteers and retirees who might also like to do the same, pending approval. 

Upcoming Events

Councilor O’Donnell reminded all of the Relay for Life that is coming up on July 13, and  Mayor Hallum reminded all that Rushford Days starts next week July 16th. 

Joe Johnson funeral

Mayor Hallum read a special statement regarding the funeral of Joe Johnson. “[I’m] proud of the community for the welcome home that was given to WWII Vet Joe Johnson on Friday night (July 6th). The firefighters, police, motorcycles, and townspeople were quiet and respectful for the procession. The funeral ceremony was very solemn. Rushford did a great job. Todd James, crews at the Rushford American Legion, the other American Legion Posts, all did a great job too. This was a ‘once in a lifetime event.’” 

The council members were all in agreement, with the added comment, “There are four more Minnesota boys to bring home.”

The next meeting of the Rushford City Council is July 23 at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall All members of the public are invited to attend.