Pownell, Martig discuss budget, taxation; Law enforcement in Rice County is prioritizing safe driving through December

During their Tuesday evening working session, Northfield City Council finalized the recommendation it will make for the 2023-24 municipal

City manager Ben Martig

budget.

The council heard presentations from some city department heads, including Community Development Director Jake Reilly and Police Chief Mark Elliott on some of the needs they have in their departments, as well as a general overview of City Engineer Dave Bennett’s Capital Improvement and Equipment Plans. In recent weeks, the council has heard presentations about the Parks Capital Improvement Plan and also the infrastructure plans for the coming year.

Throughout it all, the city, and in particular Mayor Rhonda Pownell and city manager Ben Martig, have taken steps to communicate the city’s needs to Northfield residents, showing why the city’s tax rate will increase by 18.5 next year % will rise.

There are several reasons behind the increase. Inflation has hovered around 8.5% this year, leading to cost increases across the board. Those increases are perhaps felt most acutely in infrastructure costs for projects that cannot be postponed. Labor costs have become a bigger concern in the city even before inflation hit. Martig said that when he was hired in 2016, Northfield’s pay scale for government employees fell far short of comparable cities, and he has worked very hard to bring Northfield to the middle of the pack to recruit and retain quality employees .

“Wages and fringe benefits have played tricks on us in recent years. We are in the middle of our peer peer group for recruiting and retaining people. But we weren’t there [a few years ago]. Probably 2017 was our first pay plan that we did, and it’s had a dramatic effect on our costs. But we are less people leave and [less] turnover that happens all the time. We can also recruit people in the middle again. And we also have studies done to keep up to date, so that we will no longer make those big leaps along the way as we used to.”

Martig said the city has been understaffed for nearly a decade. By adding seven known employees in early 2022, he said, the workforce was back to early 2000 levels. The city is still dealing with labor demand, particularly at the police station which opened for the first time this summer in the Chief Mark Elliott’s term of office was fully staffed for exactly two weeks. Since then, two officers have left the department and five retirements are scheduled for 2024 requiring immediate staffing to maintain a seamless level of service.

Mayor Rhonda Pownell

Mayor Pownell said she, the council and city staff are well aware of the practical concerns of a nearly 20% tax hike and the third double-digit property tax increase in the past four years. There are plans to increase Northfield’s commercial industrial tax base, as well as to increase its total net tax capacity, to prevent these increases from happening every year, but she said it will take time for those plans to take effect. Inflation and cost increases could exacerbate the problem, but those are problems, she said, beyond the city’s control.

“That is being felt all over the country; it is the period we are in. Without the quality workforce, we cannot grow our industrial tax base. We can’t increase our commercial [base]the industrial [base], or the residential developments that will even help level the playing field on property taxes. It is really vital and important.”

A public hearing on the budget will be held at the scheduled last council meeting of the year on Tuesday, December 6. Anyone wishing to address the council to express their views on the matter may do so at that time. Martig said he, the mayor, council members and city staff are all available to discuss the matter, and can all be contacted through the city’s website at northfieldmn.gov

Jeff Johnson’s full conversation with City Manager Ben Martig and Mayor Rhonda Pownell can be heard here

Local law enforcement officials share public transportation concerns

With the holiday season here, Rice County law enforcement officers will be working state-funded extra shifts, to a focus on visually impaired and distracted drivers and prevent them from harming themselves or anyone else.

A Rice County statement said 49 people have been killed on Minnesota roads in drunk driving accidents over the past five years between Thanksgiving Eve and New Year’s Eve, the end of the enforcement campaign. In the past five years, a total of 620 alcohol-related road deaths have been recorded, while 377 people suffered life-changing injuries as a result of drunk driving accidents.

Of the 143 deaths or serious injuries in Rice County between 2017 and 2021, 48 were alcohol-related, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. That’s an average of 10 per year, the 12th highest total in the state. Rice County is the 14th most populous county in Minnesota.

In addition to drunk driving, officers will look for drivers under the influence of other substances, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs, and THC-infused edibles and beverages that are now legal in Minnesota. According to the statement, drug-driving incidents are on the rise in Minnesota, accounting for 6,941 incidents from 2012-16 compared to 15,747 from 2017-21, an increase of 227% over a five-year period.

Meanwhile, Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott, who has repeatedly expressed concern about drunk driving, said he is also concerned about the return of winter and icy road conditions, which could cause problems for the most sober drivers.

Between Monday, Nov. 14 and Thursday, Nov. 17, when road conditions were particularly and rather unexpectedly icy, Elliott said Northfield saw more than a dozen weather-related car accidents. Every year, he said, when the first winter weather arrives, Minnesotans need to be reminded of some basic driving wisdom:

“Better to go slow and wish you went fast,” he said, “than go fast and wish you went slow.” He also suggested as if a favorite family member is in the car.

“You have to drive as if your grandmother is sitting next to you and has a cup of coffee with her. Not a Tumbler with a lid on it, but an old-fashioned cup of coffee filled to the brim. You don’t want to spill that on grandma’s lap. So it should be easy and smooth on the brake and easy and smooth on the throttle and with your turnings.

Elliott said it’s important to understand road conditions, pay attention to the weather forecast, try to anticipate, or at least account for, possible ice on the roads, and take the extra time it takes to get on to get to your destination.

“We all understand if someone is a few minutes late for a meeting or appointment because the roads are bad,” he said. “Just take a few extra minutes.”

Both Elliott also echoed Rice County’s statement, which reminded all drivers and passengers to wear a seatbelt, which is always the best defense against both bad and reckless driving.

Jeff Johnson’s full conversation with Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott can be heard here

Rich Larson is KYMN’s Director of News. Contact him at [email protected]

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