5/8/2014 1:56:00 PM Info on Harris financial condition to be aired at May 13 meeting
A contingent of citizens from the Harris area lobbied the County Board during the last Board meeting of February, asking the commissioners in open microphone to discontinue efforts to transfer county road jurisdiction to the city of Harris. And the road issue continues to be reviewed, with a hearing set for Tuesday May 13 at 7 p.m. in Harris. Concerned citizens and the mayor of Harris have informed the county the Harris city budget can’t handle the added expense of the roads. But, the most recent data released through the state auditor’s office doesn’t paint Harris as a city in financial trouble.
And earlier this year the city council voted to approve early pay-off of fire truck debt. According to the Harris website January meeting minutes, council paid off the remaining $63,000 on the equipment to save the city about $2,700 in interest payments. Following up with Mayor Diane Miller on available financial data, the Press asked why Harris anticipates such budget turmoil over six miles of roadway coming onto the urban system, over two years. Mayor Miller said more information “needs to come out” because, she agreed, just looking at state fiscal reports does not leave one with the impression the city’s finances are fragile. The City of Harris is slated to receive three county road segments, #61, 58 and 59 that county officials say no longer serve the county system. The county engineer has committed to addressing existing condition issues and perform county culvert repairs/replacement before turnback. County Engineer Joe Triplett is recommending the county also provide two years of transitional maintenance from any effective turnback date.
Harris Mayor Miller stated at a County Board meeting that accepting the miles will be a “...huge step backwards in our (city’s) financial recovery.” In our telephone follow-up Mayor Miller said she will share more detail at some point in time. She did not elaborate, but stressed that the city budget is in dire condition, despite state data: ~ According to the state auditor Harris had $522,000 in overall revenues for 2011, compared to $313,000 in expenditures. ~ Its unrestricted balance, which experts advise cities to maintain for cash flow at 50 to 60 percent of annual expenses, was in excess of a million dollars in 2011, according to the state auditor’s report. Mayor Miller describes Harris as operating on a shoestring. She added that Harris has cut staff (office is open three days) and needs to get personnel numbers back to “full capacity” but wasn’t prepared to add detail to the staffing goals. The financial impact of adding the six miles to the Harris budget hasn’t been identified publicly nor was the mayor prepared to discuss the cost.
Mayor Miller said she wants to continue to collect data, while working with the county. She agreed that somebody simply reviewing public finance information, probably would be correct to question why Harris has financial worries. More information will be forthcoming, Miller concluded. The City of Harris has a Public Facilities Authority (state) loan of approximately $4.7 million, (original amount was $4.995 million) for financing its wastewater treatment plant. The PFA website states the loan was received in December 2006 and matures in August 2037 and the interest rate is one percent. Mayor Miller said the PFA debt is a concern. Water and sewer fees have been increased in Harris, but elected officials are avoiding burdening taxpayers with debt service against those who may not be hooked up to city water and sewer services.
The Harris tax rate heading into 2014 was 55 percent, which is below what the county auditor estimates as tax rates for Wyoming, Taylors Falls, Shafer, and North Branch (the township-city consolidated parcels). The County Board originally set a deadline of this month, for reverting road segments classified as serving a localized transit function. It’s looking like this jurisdiction reversion process will become more focused on long-term, commented County Administrator Bruce Messelt, as some unanticipated controversy with shifting responsibility for who cares for which roadway has developed. Several townships have already held their road reversion hearings and the county has received pushback on s few segments.