Additions for the police department, Mississippi Riverfront Project and employee insurance will contribute to increases in Brainerd’s 2020 budget and levy, which the council discussed during a workshop Monday, Aug. 26.

Finance Director Connie Hillman presented rough numbers Monday and asked the council members of feedback on what they would like to see in the preliminary budget, which is due by the end of September, and the council will likely approve it at its next meeting Sept. 3.

Hillman said she estimates about $471,000 of increased expenditures in 2020 and laid out the main areas driving increases.

Police department

With 24 officers right now, and two in training, Police Chief Corky McQuiston aims to increase the department to 27 full-time officers in 2020.

McQuiston expects to hire two more officers by October but would like to have 27 by March 2020.

FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data shows the average number of police officers for a city the size of Brainerd is 32 officers. That means Brainerd’s staff of 26 is nearly 20% below the national average, while the city has a higher than average crime rate compared to similarly sized cities.

“If we don’t try and target this number (27) and get there, we’re constantly going to be way behind,” McQuiston said. “And I have some serious and significant concerns of what the long-term impact is going to be.”

Not only will a 27th officer help to maintain balance on patrol teams, but McQuiston said it will also help lower the call-to-staff ratio and officer workloads and hopefully help retain officers. In the last couple years, he said the department has lost four of its best officers to other agencies boasting lower workloads, more advancement opportunities, more equipment and in some cases better wages.

“If we’re going to try and keep the good people that we have, I really can’t stress how important this is,” he said.

City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson said city staff conducted exit interviews with some of the officers who left in the last couple years -- primarily those who went to work for Crow Wing County -- and learned call load and family/work balance was the biggest issue.

With the shortage of an officer now, McQuiston said if any officer is out sick or out due to the Family and Medical Leave Act, that creates difficulties for time off for other officers and usually results in overtime.

Council members came to a general consensus they would like to see a 27th officer in the 2020 budget. Council member Dave Pritschet said the morale boost coming from an addition officer would likely be worth it, while Kevin Stunek noted the extreme pressure police officers are under today.

“I don’t think we should make a decision just based on morale, but I think there’s a lot of organizations that undervalue what morale does,” Pritschet said. “And I think this would be sending a good message to the police department.”

Hillman estimates the cost to be $79,000 for an officer to start March 1, 2020.

Riverfront project and comprehensive planning

In 2019, the city budgeted up to $17,000 for Ashley Kaisershot of Sourcewell to consult on the city’s Mississippi Riverfront Project. The city’s riverfront committee -- established in 2015 -- aims to reconnect Brainerd with the Mississippi River. The group presented a draft plan to the council earlier in August with ideas for trails, educational nature centers, a kayak launch and a small amphitheater along the river on property south of the Northstar Apartments.

The 2019 contract budgeted for up to 6.5 hours a week from Kaisershot. For 2020, Community Development Director David Chanski proposed raising that to a maximum of 10 hours of week, which would translate to roughly $9,000 more, or a total cost not to exceed $26,000.

The purpose of the increase, he said, is to continue working on the project as it moves forward into the funding stage, but also to help the city with its new comprehensive plan.

Because Kaisershot helped write a large portion of the new comp plan, which is in the draft stage, Chanski said she would be the ideal person to help the city with its implementation once the plan is approved in the next couple months.

Council President Gabe Johnson asked if the comprehensive plan work would mean less time spent on the Mississippi Riverfront Project. Chanski said riverfront work will likely be more sporadic next year than it has been this year because the next step is to look at funding options. That means some weeks might just consist of waiting to hear back on grant applications, for example, which is the time Kaisershot could take to consult on the comp plan.

The council agreed to add the extra hours in the 2020 budget, though Chanski said Sourcewell will only bill the city for hours used, so it may not pay the full $26,000.

Other expense increases

Hillman said she expects an increase in personnel services expenditures of about $314,000. Aside from the additional police officer, this number also takes into account increases in retirement pay and insurance rates.

The Public Employees Retirement Association’s employer contribution rate for police and fire employees will increase in 2020 from 16.95% to 17.7%, resulting in an extra $18,500 for the budget.

While the city does not yet have the renewal rates for employee health insurance, preliminary numbers estimate up to a 12% increase to HealthPartners, which is the plan most employees use. Hillman said she also expects about 5% and 6% increases to the other two employee health insurance plans and a 5% increase in workers compensation insurance.

Also contributing to the increased budget are:

  • An extra $25,000 for snow removal and salt and sand, expenses the city has consistently exceeded budget on.

  • $10,000 for the city attorney to review the city’s charter.

  • $46,000 more for vehicles for the police, community development and parks departments.

Revenue increases

Two sources of increased revenue, Hillman said, are building permits and Local Government Aid.

With various school district building projects beginning, Hillman estimates an extra $50,000 in building permit revenue in 2020.

The city can also expect an extra $234,000 in Local Government Aid from the state.

Analyzing the numbers

For a completely balanced budget -- meaning expenditures equal revenue -- Hillman said the city would need to increase the 2020 levy by about $5,180, which would end up lowering property taxes.

With an estimated tax capacity increase of about 3.9% for 2020, Hillman told the council a 4% increase from the 2019 levy would leave property taxes relatively unchanged. That 4% would equal a total budget increase of about $235,000. The tax capacity rate for 2020, however, will not be finalized until October or November, Hillman said.

Johnson and council member Sue Hilgart expressed interest in a 2% levy increase, which would lower residential property taxes by an estimated $14 in 2020 for properties valued at $120,000, and commercial property taxes by about $95 for properties valued at $363,500.

Two percent would increase the total budget by about $118,000. Hilgart noted that number would be a means of tax relief to some residents, while also continuing to provide sufficient city staffing and services.

Hilgart, who submitted her resignation from the council in July due to a planned move out of state, will not be on the council when it approves the final 2020 budget.

Council members expect to approve the preliminary budget and levy next week. They will pass the final one in December. The final budget can be lower but not higher than preliminary numbers.