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Brainerd City Council: Infrastructure, facilities needs come to fore

Mike Angland, a vice president of Widseth Smith Nolting, gave the Brainerd City Council its first cursory look at the results of the comprehensive facilities study. The council is expected to explore the issue in depth at its retreat Monday, June 25. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

A number of infrastructure and city facilities projects loom in the future—attached with price tags the Brainerd City Council will have to consider carefully in coming years.

During the meeting Monday, June 18, members heard presentations on the five-year capital improvement plan from City Engineer Paul Sandy and a preliminary report on the comprehensive facilities study, compiled by Mike Angland, representing architectural-engineering firm Widseth Smith Nolting.

Both initiatives are indicative of aging amenities long overdue for replacement or improvement—whether it's the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in city hall, or 80-year-old sewer lines in northeast Brainerd—that, in turn, carry a hefty price tag to address.

On top of services, salaries and projects the city spends money on each year, the council must take into account the roughly $9 million cost in potential facilities improvements over the coming decade, as well as the roughly $2.5 million-$3 million annual costs needed to address roadway-sewer systems interlinking the city. Council members noted Monday the city of Brainerd accrues roughly $5.7 million annually by taxing its residents.

"Can we afford it?" council member Kelly Bevans asked his fellow council members. "I want to do it all, can we do it?"

Speaking to the Dispatch, Sandy noted both these sets of initiatives are fluid and subject to change—essentially, it means there's going to be a long series of changes and scale-backs as the city navigates these situations to balance its budget with the most pressing needs.

However, it was noted there's another way the city may look to address buildings and equipment only look to function more poorly and cost more down the road.

"That's the other option: raise taxes," Mayor Ed Menk noted. "I'm glad I only break ties (in council votes)."

"Get ready for the 25 percent increase to raise another million dollars," council member Gabe Johnson said.

He noted the city currently has about $1 million in the capital fund that isn't committed at this time, and the city has traditionally structured its budget so $1 million collected through property taxes is placed in the capital fund each year.

Five-year capital improvement plan

Sanitation

The capital improvement plan is designed to replace much of Brainerd's aging water and sewer lines—any of the sewer infrastructure predating 1941 is to be replaced within 20 years. Systemically, the piping averages about 50 years in age, and about 35 percent is older than that. Since 1992—which Sandy identified as a year the city took a notable shift toward repairing its current system—Brainerd has expanded its sewer system by more than a quarter (106,000 linear feet), while also replacing 41,000 linear feet in the same time span.

In its early stages, the plan dictates about 19 miles of pipeline will be replaced by 2022, or roughly one-fourth of the 76 miles that make up the system. Sandy added funding the replacement/rehabilitation process for the sewer system would cost about $400,000 per year, or about $50,000 per block with eight blocks being completed each year during the life of the plan.

Streets

At the same time, the plan also addresses 86 miles of streets that make up the city's roadways, which are intrinsically intertwined with the sewer/water portion of the plan based on their complementary position to the sewers beneath. Currently, the pavement covering Brainerd's streets is just old enough to legally drink, sitting at 21.8 years on average. While certain streets have reached a critical point at which replacement or extensive repairs are necessary, Brainerd's streets as a whole have been rated at 3.3 out of 4, with 4 being optimal.

Annual maintenance, resurfacing or preventative measure costs for Brainerd sit at about $1.7 million. Yearly funding falls primarily under state aid ($760,000), the current improvement fund levy dictated by the 2018 budget ($324,000), state roadway maintenance reserves ($26,000), as well as shortfall covered by bonds, additional levies or assessment proceeds from prior projects (roughly $830,000).

During Monday's meeting, Sandy noted much of the funding needed for these projects will come out of the construction fund—something of a separate entity, he said, which means Brainerd taxpayer dollars are one, but not the only source of funding for these initiatives.

On the other hand, he said, any changes instigated by the comprehensive facilities study will primarily lean on Brainerd taxpayer dollars to be implemented.

The comprehensive facilities study

In Monday's meeting, Angland focused on city hall, constructed in 1914—a longtime point of focus for the study, as well as a point of contention in the study's creation.

At the advent of the study in October 2017, council member Sue Hilgart questioned the need for a study if it was generally accepted that city hall took priority for these kinds of initiatives. The council is slated to explore the study in depth at its scheduled retreat at 5:30 p.m., Monday, June 25 at city hall.

During the course of the months-long study, Angland said thousands of photos were taken, points in data sets collected and evaluations conducted of the various facilities—essentially, assessing the state of the city's buildings in terms of their condition (aesthetic, security and functional), their uses and potential uses, as well as what projects could be implemented.

In terms of need, the status of these projects was then categorized in terms of high priority (needs to be improved in 0-5 years), medium priority (should be improved in 5-11 years) or low priority (can be improved in 11-plus years).

In general, Brainerd City Hall is an old structure and its design presents limitations in terms of space needs, remodeling options and structural amenities, Angland said. There are a number of issues evaluators labeled as "high priority"—namely, the HVAC system, the adjoining alleyway and the building's exterior (the roof in particular). Of these three, Angland said the HVAC system (installed in 1992) presented the most pressing need and opportunity for immediate improvement.

"It's exceeded its life expectancy," Angland said. "There is obvious deterioration. That's the main issue with this building."

In total, maintenance and deterioration that should be addressed comes out at about $7 million, while Angland said there's an additional $2 million in proposed projects by Widseth Smith Nolting. Angland also advised the city to consider creating a distinct position or department for administration of the facilities themselves.

At multiple points, Angland advised the council to think carefully on how projects should be considered and undertaken—do they address the most pressing needs? Do they fix foundational issues, but don't improve the work environments and services provided by city staff? Are there areas that can be addressed—such as installing a new conference room—which can springboard an area of deterioration and make it a point of growth?

These are questions council members will be considering for years.

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