Excelsior won't hold spending referendum

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2011 - 5:02 PM

The City Council decided that a petition aimed at limiting city spending was out of order.

The Excelsior City Council has decided not to hold a referendum on a proposed charter amendment aimed at controlling city spending.

Saying it would keep the city from meeting its financial obligations, which would violate its constitutional duties, the City Council voted unanimously to shelve the petition signed by about 50 people and submitted by Excelsior resident Mark Bower in July.

Bowers, a semi-retired businessman, said when he submitted the petition that he wanted to require the City Council to seek voter approval for unexpected significant expenditures.

But the effect of the amendment would have hobbled city spending, not leaving enough money to plow snow or light the streets, said City Manager Kristi Luger. The council expressed outrage at the potential dire consequences of the proposal.

"This was gross irresponsibility on the part of the people who drafted and signed it," said Council Member Jennifer Caron. "What we are looking at here shuts down the city. I am appalled that we are sitting here talking about this."

Council Member Greg Miller said it was "absurd" and "disturbing" that citizens would try to craft restrictions that would tie the hands of the city staff and council. "Everyone who is up here has tried to minimize taxes."

To anyone who might want to consider resubmitting the petition, Mayor Nick Ruehl recommended voting in elections and coming to budget hearings instead. The city has a council election every two years that gives residents regular opportunities to change the direction of the city if they are dissatisfied, Ruehl said.

With coverage by two newspapers and communications from the city, it's easy to follow city affairs, he said. "To be uninformed in Excelsior is an effort. You really have to work hard to be uninformed."

City Attorney Kevin Staunton reviewed the consequences of the proposed charter amendment and advised the council that the city had an obligation to schedule a referendum by October unless the council found the proposed charter amendment would be unconstitutional.

He said the council could find it unconstitutional because it would give the city about $2.1 million to spend in 2012 instead of the anticipated $3.8 million -- leaving the city about $440,000 short of being able to pay its bills.

The amendment would have imposed a 54 percent cut in the revenues the city could raise from property taxes and fees in 2012 and it would have cut the amount the city could spend by 44 percent.

Further, it would have prevented the city from spending funds from its reserves.

And by allowing no exceptions to the spending limit for capital projects, the amendment would have ruled out all but the smallest capital projects, Staunton said. The city also would have been prevented from raising revenue through the sale of bonds.

"Although these are severe financial restrictions that will have a dramatic impact on the city's ability to deliver services, the restrictions do not, on their face, violate the state or federal constitution or established state public policy," Staunton said. But if "operated to prevent the city from paying any of its contractual or legal obligations," that would be unconstitutional, he said.

Neither Bowers nor those who signed the petition attended the Aug. 15 meeting when the council voted. Bowers could not be reached for comment.

Council members were unhappy about the absence of the supporters.

"Why aren't they here? Where are they?" asked Council Member Mary Jo Fulkerson.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711

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