Residents seek spending regulationPublished 3:15pm Thursday, December 10, 2009
A group of Fergus Falls residents is proposing an ordinance that could require a referendum on the ice arena project. It could also have a significant effect on the way future city projects are authorized.
The ordinance was created over the past two months by a five-member group headed by Daryl Synstelien. It lays out a process for defining major capital improvement projects and determining whether or not a referendum is necessary. The ordinance would not reverse previous council resolutions supporting the arena, but it could limit the city’s ability to issue bonds for the work.
Synstelien sees the need for a set of guidelines governing spending on major capital improvements. These rules would provide a consistent, methodological approach to city spending from year to year, council to council, he said.
It’s something Synstelien believes was lacking from the council’s arena discussions in October.
“What I saw there in terms of process really lacked any healthy debate about what was a reasonable amount for the city to commit,” he said.
In response, Synstelien and four other community members — who call themselves the Fergus Votes Committee — have drafted an ordinance with consequences for not only the arena, but countless future projects.
The ordinance defines a major capital improvement project as any project estimated to be equal to or greater than 25 percent of the city’s current certified levy.
Under the proposed ordinance, major capital improvements would fall into one of three categories: primary public services, proprietary projects and elective projects.
The ordinance defines primary public services as the “most basic of municipality responsibilities,” including public safety, parking, utilities, streets and parks. The ordinance does not mandate a referendum for a primary public service project, though council members could choose to hold one if they desired.
The second classification is as a proprietary project: a project reasonably expected to be self-sustaining through sales, leasing, rental or users’ fees. The revenue generated by this type of project would be enough to service debt and meet the project’s operating and maintenance expenses, according to the ordinance. Like with primary public services, referenda on proprietary projects would be optional.
The final classification describes elective projects — non-obligatory services which are unlikely to generate enough revenue to pay for themselves. As defined by the ordinance, these projects may benefit only a narrow range of the population and would serve to increase the burden on the city’s tax base.
According to the ordinance, an elective project would need to go to a referendum if the city council wanted to proceed beyond feasibility studies, cost estimates and preliminary designs. Prior to the vote, the city would initiate a campaign to provide residents with complete information on the proposed project. The results of the referendum would dictate whether or not the project proceeds.
Synstelien said he hopes the ordinance will help the community tackle major decisions in a unified way. That hasn’t been the case with the arena, he says.
“My observation is it has led to more division than community connectedness,” he said, “and I don’t think it has to be that way.”
Synstelien’s committee is bringing its proposal to the city council through a provision outlined in Chapter 6 of the city’s charter. Any five registered voters may initiate an ordinance by way of a petition filed with the City Administrator’s office. If the petition is signed by 10 percent of the city’s registered voters, it comes before the city council for a first reading. The ordinance outlined in the petition may be approved by the council, amended or rejected, in which case it would go to residents for a vote.
Synstelien filed the ordinance with City Hall last week, and the Fergus Votes Committee is attempting to collect the 805 signatures needed to bring the measure before the council. He is confident the signatures will come through and that the ordinance will eventually pass — via the council or public vote.
Under the ordinance, the arena would be classified as an elective project, Synstelien said, meaning the council would need to consult voters before accepting bids or issuing bonds.
City Attorney Rolf Nycklemoe reiterated Tuesday that the ordinance would affect more than the arena project. Unknown capital improvement projects in the future would be subject to the same rules.
The work by Synstelien’s committee is a good example of democracy at work, Nycklemoe said, the kind of action envisioned by the charter’s authors.
“They reserved the ability for the people to do this,” he said.
Synstelien and others are going door to door to collect signatures. The city charter does not limit the time they have to reach their goal.
Synstelien, a brother of 4th Ward council member Randy Synstelien, has created a Web site that features a copy of the petition and a signature count ticker: fergusvotes.wordpress.com.
Synstelien will host an open house on the ordinance from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at 1066 Westside Dr. Committee members will be available to answer questions and the petition will be available to sign. Synstelien may be reached at 218-205-0400.