Lake Elmo council argues over use of funds for parks and trails

A split Lake Elmo City Council voted to approve a capital improvement plan for the next five years, after a contentious argument over the use of city park funds.

A capital improvement program, or CIP, is a multi-year plan for capital expenditures for city infrastructure, such as parks, streets and utility systems, vehicles, equipment and public buildings. The plan includes ways to fund the projects from varies sources, but does not commit the city to complete any of the projects in the plan. The CIP gives city staff and commissions a “checklist” of what needs the city might have and when to begin researching the costs associated with the project. All capital projects that cost more than $25,000 and have a useful lifespan of at least five years are included in the Lake Elmo CIP. The plan is reviewed annually, with the current year being removed from the plan and a new year added so the plan is always looks five years ahead.

The 2017-2021 CIP includes 90 projects, with a total cost of about $30.6 million. The projects were the recommendation of city staff, the parks commission and the finance committee.

The projects in the CIP have three different statuses — active, pending and new recommendations. Active projects are currently in the process of study by staff or committee, or are projects the city council deems important for study to begin.

Pending projects are ideas for future projects that haven’t been assigned timeline. Pending projects could also be considered beyond the five-year plan and take place in 10 or 20 years. Some of the pending projects that have not been given an exact work year include a new fire station and a new city hall.

New recommendations have not been seen on the CIP before, and need to be approved by the council before being added to the work plan.

The city council first discussed the 2017-2021 CIP Dec. 6. After lengthy discussion, the council tabled further consideration of the CIP until the Dec. 20 meeting.

On Dec. 20 meeting, the council had a heated debate over the use of the city’s Park Improvement Fund to be used to pay for park and trail projects.

About $250,000 in park improvement projects that were recommended by the parks commission had been moved from “active” to “pending” status during the Aug. 23 finance committee meeting, which was reviewing the plan. The finance committee then added a trail project on 50th Street that was estimated to cost $140,000 but did not include any estimates of the additional cost for right-of-way land acquisition to install the trail. The funds used for the trail would come from the Park Improvement Fund, the same fund used for the park improvement projects.

Mayor Mike Pearson said he would not support the changes to the parks portion of the CIP.

“The finance committee put up a trail on 50th, in contrast to the parks commission,” Pearson said. “I don’t know how it even got in front of the finance committee.”

Councilmember Julie Fliflet, the chair of the finance committee, lives at 4577 Lily Ave. N. in Lake Elmo. Pearson accused Fliflet of adding the trail project to the CIP and removing the other parks projects due to the proximity of her home to the trail.

“To think that the number one priority is in contrast to what the park commission has dealt upon for a year,” Pearson said. “What this council does — apropos of nothing — is put up a trail to the convenience of our home and disregarding the rest of the city entirely, in my opinion.”

Fliflet disagreed with Pearson’s characterization of the recommendation.

“To say that this one trail on 50th is because of one council member is ridiculous,” Fliflet said. “I know for a fact that you and the rest of the council were in favor of this trail when we voted for a new business on 50th, which passed, which would bring more car trips onto this road weekly.”

Fliflet said she personally doesn’t walk on 50th Street, but said she drives on the road every day.

“There is no shoulder,” Fliflet said, arguing that the trail is needed for safety.

City administrator Kristina Handt said there were three differing versions of the CIP for the council to vote on: the recommendation by the finance committee, the recommendation by the parks commission and the recommendation by staff.

Councilmember Anne Smith made a motion to accept the finance committees recommendation without changes.

“I’m going to say by the finance committee, because clearly this council next year or the next council can change whatever they want,” Smith said.

The city council approved the finance committee’s recommendation 3-2, with Pearson and Bloyer dissenting.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]