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Baxter council votes 3-2 in favor of infrastructure project, expresses concerns of coronavirus and economic downturn

The full rows of chairs for the public were gone. Instead, individual chairs were carefully measured and staggered 6 feet apart across the council chamber’s expanse. It was something, as Mayor Darrel Olson said, the group had never experienced before.

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Chairs are spread throughout the Baxter City Council chambers Tuesday, March 17, during the council meeting. The arrangement was made to honor social distancing recommendations from health officials amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER — Just two steps away from the final actions to move a city infrastructure project to its final lap hit two hurdles: the coronavirus pandemic and an uncertain economic outlook.

The council session, Tuesday, March 17, was the first since social distancing was implemented to help prevent the virus from spreading and presented an unusual experience.

The full rows of chairs for the public were gone. Instead, individual chairs were carefully measured and staggered 6 feet apart across the council chamber’s expanse. It was something, as Mayor Darrel Olson said, the group had never experienced before. Council members were separated at extended distances along the tables where staff members typically sat. Staff members used a handheld microphone to speak from their chairs and avoid yelling across the largely empty room. Two members of the public attended.

On the agenda was a project for city sewer, water and streets — commonly called the South Interceptor and North Forestview project — that has been the subject of multiple meetings stretching back to 2018.

The council was considering adopting the assessments for the 2020 project involving Chestnut Drive, Camwood Trail, Scenic River Drive, Mississippi Road, Forestview Drive, Land O Lakes Road, Loredo Road and Fuschia Drive — roadways in southeast Baxter, near the Mississippi River.

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The council previously agreed to cap the assessments at $15,000 for developed neighborhoods that have posed a dilemma, as the council looked to provide city services to protect the environment and provide for growth in established areas of the city served for a long time by wells and septic systems.

After deliberations on how to provide those services and be mindful of the financial burden on property owners in a city constructed with large residential lots, the council voted to move forward with this project, with council member Mark Cross opposed.

Cross said he had a hard time with any assessments right now.

“We've managed to get into a situation where we've closed all restaurants, bars, schools, universities, any place we are meeting with more than 20 people and anybody in the restaurant industry should expect 75% layoffs,” Cross said Tuesday.

In a tourist area, Cross said, this disruption is expected for 90 days.

“And in those 90 days, we're going to be lucky to see a majority of those businesses that have been closed, come back,” Cross said. “So I have a real hard time moving forward on saddling anybody with an additional assessment.”

Council member Connie Lyscio said as an educator, she was always told to monitor and adjust and two weeks ago things looked very different than they do now.

“I think the success of our community depends on all of us doing our part,” Lyscio said. “... I guess I'm in support of this, but I would like to hit the pause button and revisit it.”

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Council member Zach Tabatt shared those concerns.

“I'd hate for us to look back in 10 years and say that we are now considering spending 15% more on the exact same project,” Tabatt said. “And I don’t know what our options are right now, but we are definitely in the case of a completely different world.”

Tabatt noted the city still has the ability to take the project day by day until a contract is signed with the construction firm in late April and he was in favor of keeping the conversation going.

“I'm concurring with that as well, that we keep moving forward with a mindfulness toward the conditions — the conditions of the community, the country and certainly the world,” said council member Todd Holman. “I think it's been amazing, you know, the last three days and certainly the weeks leading up to that, to watch what's gone on.”

Holman said it’s not a comparable situation, but he noted when the Great Recession hit in 2007 and 2008 the city put the brakes on and built Clearwater Road without sewer or water and not up to standards of a collector road. Once that is done, Holman noted, it’s something people have to live with for a long time. The decision came in the tension of the financial crisis then, but it was an outcome, Holman said, he always regretted. Looking at examples now of global peaks and recoveries related to the current pandemic, Holman said he was supportive of moving forward “with the optimism that we will work through this potential recession as well.”

Olson said no one was taking this lightly. And this project has been the subject of a lot of thought and discussion, he said.

“The council voted on moving it forward and so we’ve invested a lot of money. We started spending real dollars to look at the whole system,” Olson said. “… And up until a week ago, it was kind of a different world.”

The city has expended about $1 million on the project to date, Olson said, adding that has to be a factor in the conversation along with how the city would be able to handle that expense without following through on the project as planned. Olson said the council tried to make the assessment as palatable as possible with 15 years to pay it and extended time, from one year to five years, to connect to the system. Olson said the interest rates are as favorable as they are ever going to be and, from a financial standpoint, may never be this good again. It’s the one good thing from a bad situation, he said. Olson said he’s been weighing the situation and arguing with himself about it and it does not seem to be fiscally responsible to just do the roads.

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The council solicited bids for construction and received them in February and is obligated to act on that by April 21. Eight notices of objection were received about the project and those property owners had 30 days to file in district court after Tuesday. The first assessment installment would not be due until 2021.

Options for the council included holding off on adopting the assessments until later in April. Olson said he met with staff recently to look at other options, even extending the assessment to start later, but that was not a legal option.

“Everybody here was elected to represent people and your conscience,” Olson said, adding he wanted everyone to feel free in their decision-making. Until this past week, Olson said while the council members were still uncomfortable, a majority were in favor of moving ahead with the project and he felt they were on the right path.

The council voted 3-2 with Holman, Olson and Tabatt in favor and Cross and Lyscio opposed. The final step in the project will be a decision to award the contract when the council is expected to meet April 21.

Baxter City Council closes city facilities

The city council voted to close all city facilities — city hall, park facilities and the public works building — to the public through April 7.

City staff continues to work with contact via phone or email.

As a public service, we've opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchBizBuzz.
Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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