The Canton City Council meeting was in session for over three hours on Wednesday night, April 14, with council members discussing several ongoing issues as well as addressing a few concerns from citizens. Clerk Brock Bergey presented the audit report as well as a slideshow on possible reconfigurations of the city hall to improve staff efficiency and work space.
The council reviewed the city’s financial statements for the year 2020 with the auditors’ report prepared by Hawkins Ash CPAs, the city’s designated auditor. The auditors determined the financial statements were presented fairly in all material respects, Bergey reported.
He noted the city had been very close to operating within its budget for the year and Hawkins Ash found the 2020 general fund disbursements were under budget by less than 1%.
Actual spending totaled $297,176, which included more than $26,000 in CARES Act funding.
In comparison, the 2019 audit found general fund disbursements over budget by less than 1%. In 2018, disbursements exceeded budget by more than $64,000.
Bergey also noted that the 2020 water fund receipts totaled $62,410, while disbursements totaled $63,682. This $1,272 shortfall justifies the council-approved increase to water rates in 2021, he added.
The council, in 2020, had opted to cash in a certificate of deposit, totaling $25,098, to keep the city’s propriety funds operating in the positive. Those include water, sewer and garbage funds.
The presentation also included a list of six recommendations made by the auditors in 2019 to improve business practices and accounting software. In 2020, that list had been reduced to one item pertaining to service contracts with townships by the fire department. Bergey pointed out that this is an action item to be remedied in 2021.
The city council members expressed their gratitude to Bergey and Deputy Clerk Barb Kerns for the work they have done on the city’s financial operations.
Copies of the complete report can be found on the city’s website, www.cantonmn.com, or may be reviewed during regular city hall office hours.
After presenting the auditors’ report, Bergey presented a comparison of the audit figures from the past five years.
In a related matter, regarding legal action against former clerk Lolly Melander, who is accused of theft of embezzlement from the City of Canton. Bergey reported she had appeared for a settlement conference on Monday, April 12, but that hearing is to be continued on Monday, April 26. Melander is now facing 49 felony counts with charges being filed by the City of Whalan, where she had also served as city clerk.
Bergey explained he had expected to present a settlement offer for council approval at Wednesday night’s meeting, but the county attorney did not have an offer prepared in time. Bergey asked the council to be on “standby” for a special meeting to review settlement options.
County Attorney Brett Corson had told Bergey that he will be seeking a trial date to be scheduled on the court docket after the hearing on April 26.
City hall reconfiguration
Bergey presented a slideshow of the current office space for employees and options to remedy the space usage.
He said his goal is to improve employee efficiency and provide more work space for each employee.
Currently he, the clerk, shares a small office with the deputy clerk and public works director. There is one phone and are two work stations shared by the three employees.
He outlined five different options, including creating a new work space by expanding the office layout into the meeting room area; adding a work space in the file room located within the current office layout; creating a new work space with office furniture located in the meeting room area; taking the public works station out and locating that at the wastewater treatment plant; working with the current office layout and carrying on as they currently are.
The costs for the options range from $750 a year for added internet and phone connections to a little over $3,000 for the first option, adding a wall to create a front office space for the deputy clerk.
Citizen Donivee Johnson asked Bergey if these costs associated with the reconfigurations could be covered by CARES Act funds.
Bergey said arguments could be made for utilizing those funds for this project, including the need to create distancing between employees. The only hesitation he had with committing those funds was not yet knowing exactly how much the city would be receiving or when.
Councilman Charlie Warner suggested adding a desk in the meeting room area would provide the most flexibility in the future if needs were to change. However Public Works Director Jon Nordsving pointed out there could be security issues with no door between the desk and the meeting area, which is used by other organizations besides the city.
“Barb (Kerns) would definitely have to be careful what she left on her desk,” Bergey added. He agreed that adding a wall would create a more secure space.
Now that the council is meeting in the town hall, where audio/visual equipment has been added, the members agreed it would not likely go back to meeting at the city hall.
“I agree we should utilize more space in that building,” Warner added.
The council did not make any decision on the matter, tabling it until the May meeting.
Councilman Warner asked the council to revisit the pet licensing ordinance in Canton to make an exception to vaccinating cats who may never leave their owners’ home.
Currently, the city ordinance requires cats and dogs, living in city limits, to be licensed with the city. To obtain a license, the owner must show proof of vaccination for each animal.
Warner told the council that several citizens had contacted him with concerns about requiring cats to be vaccinated. He said some claimed their animals never leave the house while others had concerns about the safety of the vaccine for older cats.
“I agree it’s a slippery slope when you are talking about dogs,” Warner said. “As for cats, I think it’s just needless to require cats to be vaccinated.”
Councilman Carl Ernst agreed “as long as the cats are always inside.” However, he also pointed out that any cats that are roaming the city, crawling under buildings, should be treated as a varmint and dealt with accordingly.
He continued to state he felt all dogs should be vaccinated because “any dog can bite.”
Councilman Randy Gossman interjected that he believed the city would open a “huge can of worms” if it started letting some people not vaccinate their animals while requiring others to do so.
Bergey had contacted two area veterinarians who both stressed the importance of having animals vaccinated. He reported they had also agreed that in rare occasions there may be an animal with an autoimmune disease that would suffer from the vaccine, but a cat’s age would not create any adverse reactions to a vaccine.
City Attorney Greg Schieber was present at the meeting and stated the rules for domestic animals were likely created with good intentions so residents were not living in unhealthy conditions. He recommended the council continue requiring the vaccinations and licensing so the city can track the number of animals in town as well as the health of those animals.
“We are not going door to door looking for unlicensed pets, but if we see someone walking down the street with a dog and they are not licensed, we may mention it the next time they are in city hall,” Bergey said. “We are asking for voluntary compliance in most cases.”
The consensus of the council was to leave ordinance the same, requiring both cats and dogs to be vaccinated and licensed.
Ball field upgrades
Legion Commander Mike Wilder was back to update the council on the grant application the Legion had submitted to help pay for electrical wiring and lighting upgrades for the city ball field.
Wilder had attended the March meeting and outlined three options the city could take to restore and improve the electrical service at the field. The costs range from $2,000 to $7,000.
The Legion applied for a grant through MiEnergy which they hoped would cover costs to do the entire project to repair the lights, replace wiring and add some outlets.
Wilder told the council the Legion had received a grant, but it was only $750 to be used towards the project. He also hoped the city would agree to utilize funds from the donation to the city by the Don Wilken Estate, currently in a CD that is up for renewal.
That donation was made to support park and recreation projects and Wilder said while the Legion does not have a huge amount of money in its gambling funds (due to a decrease in pull tab sales during COVID shutdowns) it would support future park and rec projects in the future as it is able.
Bergey cautioned the council about investing money into something where kids can go play during the day, without lights needed, and where there may or may not be a softball league utilizing it.
After a lengthy discussion about the pros and cons of doing the project, the council decided to pull $7,000 from the CD to work with and do the wiring needed to safely turn the lights back on to the field.
Councilwoman Cindy Shanks supported the motion, but stressed whatever money is left after the project is completed should go back into the CD to be used for future projects.
Before leaving the council meeting, Wilder stated the Legion would be hosting a Memorial Day program once again this year at the town hall.
During the public comment period, Josh Nordsving asked the council why ATVs were not included in the list of vehicles allowed to operate within city limits. Currently the city requires a permit for UTVs, side-by-sides and golf carts operating within city limits, but does not include ATVs.
Bergey noted the council amended the ordinance in 2017 to exclude ATVs.
Ernst noted the city had made the decision at that time because there were many younger people were “running around town” on them and it was getting to be a safety issue.
He also said, in his opinion, ATVs are not a mode of transportation meant for in-town, but rather for the country and trails out-of-town. Residents can ride the most direct route from their residence to the country and back without consequence.
City Attorney Schieber explained that an ATV is a different type of vehicle and it is treated differently by many cities.
Holly Knutson asked how the ATV is considered when used for snow removal in the winter. She uses hers at multiple locations and travels between those locations on city streets.
Warner suggested adding this issue to the May council meeting agenda to discuss it further.
Citizen Dave Terbeest came to the council to ask for a “kinder” stance on seasonal utility billing. He explained that he is now being charged a $78 base charge for utilities while he is residing at his winter home. “No one likes to pay for nothing, which is exactly what I’m getting for my $78,” he said. “I’d like to ask the council to come up with a more friendly plan for us seniors who don’t spend the winters here.”
Bergey explained there are about five residents in Canton who leave for the winter and anyone who has an active service connection is receiving the monthly service charge. “You, as the council, decided it was a fair and consistent business practice and to follow the ordinance,” he added.
Under the past city clerk, she had taken it upon herself to waive these base charges for residents who went elsewhere during the winter. When learning of this practice, the council agreed it should be discontinued beginning January 1 of this year.
Residents do have the option to disconnect their services prior to leaving and asking for reconnection when they return. There is a $75 fee to disconnect and another $75 to reconnect.
Attorney Schieber said the base charges for city utilities help cover a fixed cost the city has for maintaining the infrastructure. A usage charge helps cover day-to-day operations of those utility facilities. And when a resident is absent, they would save on those user rates.
In a community the size of Canton, with 174 active connections, Bergey said taking even one or two base rate charges out of the mix affects the bottom line.
“I still think the council should revisit this and come back with a nicer fee,” Terbeest said.
“A do stand that you can pay your base rate,” said Ernst. “It is a service.”
At this point, Warner added, “I do think we have to have it so we don’t waive everything, but perhaps we can offer a lower disconnect and reconnect fee.”
Bergey noted this would require establishing an additional fee, with new parameters, on the fee schedule. He recommended adding this issue to the November agenda when that fee schedule is determined.
In another item of business, Terbeest also asked the city to remove a fire hydrant from his property. He explained he would like to move his field drive and the hydrant is in the way. “It’s like having a stump in the middle of your driveway,” he explained.
Nordsving said the hydrant is used for flushing the lines each spring and fall and is located on a “dead end” like many others around town. Flushing is necessary to rid the lines of bacterial growth and if not done properly and regularly water could become unsafe to drink.
The hydrant cannot be removed for that reason as well as fire safety for area residents and businesses and moving the hydrant would be very costly.
When asked if he would pay for moving the hydrant and the line, Terbeest said he would not as he felt it was the city’s hydrant and the city’s water main and therefore the city’s responsibility.
After a lengthy discussion, the council agreed the hydrant needed to stay in its current location.
Considering both the costs and the health risks, Gossman said, “I just can’t see how the city can justify moving it.”
As the water supervisor, Jon Nordsving said he would recommend the city keeping the hydrant in its current location as well.