The city of St. Francis paid $2 million for 183 acres of farmland in 2007 — three times the average price per acre back then for east-central Minnesota farmland — to use as a sanitary sewer pond.
Now the city has abandoned that sewer expansion plan and is stuck with the land. Its estimated market value has plummeted to less than $600,000, according to public records.
And a group of furious residents is demanding answers and organizing a slate of three candidates in hopes of turning over the City Council in this fall’s election. The grass-roots group held its first town hall meeting on the issue Tuesday night at the St. Francis American Legion.
The brouhaha is the latest controversy to roil the city of 7,300 on the northern edge of Anoka County. In 2015, the City Council voted to rebuild the city’s 1970s-era failing sanitary sewer on the site of the existing sewer plant at a cost of $24 million.
This week, the St. Francis City Council voted to continue to lease the 183 acres to farmers for about $18,000 for the year. Steve Feldman, a contractor who is running for mayor, figures that’s barely enough to cover taxes and expenses. Since 2007, St. Francis has paid about $85,000 in property taxes to Isanti County, where the property is located, Feldman said.
“The price was way exorbitant,” he said. “When we asked questions, we don’t get any answers. Why they paid top dollar, no one can understand. There is a lot of distrust in the city.”
But St. Francis Mayor Steve Kane, who was on the City Council in 2007, said that “land was running short” at the time. “It was not a mistake to buy it,” Kane said. “We saw a need.”
Kane, who does not plan to seek re-election, said he believes the city should hold onto the property and see if prices go up. While he doesn’t recall all of the specifics of the land deal or whose idea it was, he also doesn’t remember seeing any red flags. “I don’t recall who knew what or what relationships there were,” Kane said. “I don’t know. I have no idea.”
Officials with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency confirmed that St. Francis’ old sanitary sewer was not meeting state standards, requiring a replacement. “We really don’t have a choice,” Kane said last summer.
But hundreds showed up to ask questions about the $24 million plan, urging the council to find a less-expensive alternative.
City leaders are hoping for millions in state aid, but monthly water and sewer bills are expected to climb from $73 to $123 a month, according to the city. That’s a substantial hike for an exurban community with a median household income of $45,000.
“I’ve never seen so many hot-button issues in all my years on the council,” Kane said. “I’m done. I’m tired.”
Feldman said he would bring transparency and due diligence to city government, if elected. “I am not out to chop heads,” he said. “I love this city and something has got to change here.”
Staff writer Tom Meersman contributed to this story.