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City Council strikes down charter change; nonprofit funding intact

Council members voted 4-3 to deny a change to the city's charter that would eliminate funding for senior citizen, green space and community action organizations.

People sit in chairs in City Hall
Members of The Center in Brainerd show support for their organization during the Brainerd City Council meeting Monday, June 20, 2022, during which council members discussed a change to the city's charter that would affect the nonprofit's funding.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — The city of Brainerd will continue contributing funds to select nonprofits, at least for the time being.

City Council members voted 4-3 Monday, June 20, to deny an amendment to the city charter that would eliminate a section that promises a portion of the city’s levy each year to organizations that provide community action, green space and senior citizen programs. Even one opposing vote would have struck down the motion, as the council must approve any changes to the charter unanimously.

More than a dozen people sat in the audience at City Hall Monday night, holding signs that read “Proud member of The Center” to show their opposition to the proposed measure. A few shared testimony on the importance of The Center to seniors in the area and called into question the idea of the City Council overturning a measure originally passed by a citywide referendum.

“This was voted on by the public,” said Kathy Tusa, president of The Center. “... You already changed the funding a little bit, and I think it should be voted on by more than just you, no disrespect intended.”

Background

Charter Commission members voted 5-1 in May to recommend the city remove the section of the charter in question. Commission members said they were proposing the move to avoid showing favoritism to certain nonprofits over others. The Brainerd City Council unanimously approved the first reading of the ordinance change June 6, sending it on to a second reading and public hearing Monday night.Historically, Brainerd’s charter guaranteed a portion of its levied tax dollars to the Northland Arboretum, Brainerd Community Action and to the establishment and maintenance of a program for the benefit of senior citizens or to subsidize a nonprofit senior citizen organization.

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The funds for Brainerd Community Action were guaranteed through a voter-approved referendum in 1976, while the senior organization funds came from a referendum in 1982. There was no referendum vote for the Arboretum funds. Instead, the City Council amended the charter in 2001 to add in funds for the nonprofit.

Last year, the City Council, at the recommendation of the Charter Commission, amended the document’s language to exclude the Northland Arboretum and Brainerd Community Action by name but instead commit to supporting entities that provide community programs and events and arboretum or green space organizations within the city limits of Brainerd .

More on the city charter
The proposed change to the city's charter would eliminate automatic annual funding for three nonprofits.

The council then decided to go through a request for proposal process to determine which entities would receive the funds, as the previous contracts with Brainerd Community Action, the Northland Arboretum and The Center ended in 2022.

The City Council approved five-year contracts with The Center and Brainerd Community Action but held off on the Northland Arboretum’s contract after discussing the organization’s location, as the majority of its land sits in Baxter and not Brainerd.

The council ultimately voted 4-3 to give the money to the Arboretum through 2023, allowing the council time to set up another request for proposal process for future funds. Council members also wanted to see a working group formed with representatives from Brainerd, Baxter, Crow Wing County and the Arboretum to discuss future funding options. Crow Wing County has since stated it will not participate.

More public input

Along with Tusa, The Center Executive Director DeAnn Barry advocated for the organization Monday, highlighting the referendum vote that approved the city funds in the first place as well as many of the events The Center puts on for the community. She also said she would be happy to provide the council with the specific items funded through the levy dollars.

DeAnn Barry
The Center Executive Director DeAnn Barry addresses the Brainerd City Council Monday, June 20, 2022.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Suzanne Hanson told council members they should all tour The Center before being allowed to vote on the measure, and Karen Reither said it should go to another referendum vote instead of having just the council vote. Another member of The Center said it is important for seniors to have a place like The Center to go for friendship and companionship, as the “golden years” aren’t so golden for many.

Brainerd Community Action Executive Director Dave Badeaux, who is also the mayor but does not vote except in the case of a tie, said on behalf of his organization he appreciates the opportunity to work with the city for the next five years.

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“Whether or not that continues beyond that, we understand that you guys have things that you have to work with in terms of needing to be fiscally responsible,” Badeaux said. “However, we do believe that we put forth a solid proposal. We do believe that that proposal is something that can be executed, and we look forward to continued dialogue over the next handful of years.”

Monday’s decision

Council Member Mike O’Day, who also sits on the Charter Commission, said he was originally on the fence when this item came up at the last Charter Commission. While he has never seen an issue with The Center, O’Day said information was misconstrued among members of the organization when the first language change was proposed, causing some of those members to chastise the City Council before a decision was made. He said part of the reason this change is coming up now might be because people don’t want to deal with that drama again.

O’Day also recognized the original referendum to approve the senior center funding and said the Charter Commission might want to consider another vote.

Council member Tiffany Stenglein, who said earlier this month she would vote against the measure, told the City Council she felt she was voting for what the community wanted.

“I think that, first of all, we as elected officials need to put our egos behind us when we consider things like this. It is our job to interact with the public and to explain things that are happening when people are questioning or confused. It is very confusing, some of the things that we do,” Stenglein said. “But more importantly, I firmly believe that government is how we as a community come together and accomplish things that we want to do. And it has been made clear to me over the last several months that these organizations and funding them, that is something that we as a community want to do.”

O’Day ultimately voted against the motion with Stenglein, as did Kevin Stunek and Dave Pritschet. Gabe Johnson, Kelly Bevans and Tad Erickson voted for the change.

Members of the city’s Charter Commission could consider putting the issue on a ballot for voters to decide on, if they so choose. The commission’s next meeting is July 13.

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THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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