Snow removal to stay the course in downtown Brainerd
City council members decided to keep the downtown's special services district in tact for this coming winter but agreed to explore alternative assessment methods for the future.
BRAINERD — Snow removal services in downtown Brainerd will remain the same for at least another year.
City Council members unanimously accepted a bid from Tom’s Backhoe Service during their meeting Monday, Nov. 7, after hearing testimony about the benefits of the city’s special services district from downtown business owners.
The first to give support was Marie Kirsch, owner of Knotty Pine Bakery, which opened on Laurel Street in 2019.
“It’s invaluable to my business and to maintaining downtown Brainerd as a destination shopping district for the area,” Kirsch said.
The downtown special services district includes the area of Laurel Street between South Sixth and Eighth streets, Front Street between South Sixth and Eighth streets, and South Seventh Street between Maple and Front streets. Property owners in that area are assessed each year for snow removal, irrigation maintenance, landscaping and garbage collection, all services either provided by the city or contracted through the city.
Tom’s Backhoe continues to be the only contractor to submit bids for snow removal operations in downtown Brainerd. The city pays a lump sum for the first 4 inches of snowfall on roads, sidewalks, alleys and parking lots, and another fee for each additional inch.
The 4-inch base price from Tom’s Backhoe for this season is $6,184.57 for streets, alleys and parking lots, and $1,433 for sidewalks. Each additional inch during a snow event larger than 4 inches costs $1,734.72 for streets, alleys and parking lots, and $301.69 for sidewalks. These prices compare to base prices of $5,622.33 and $1,302.73, and additional inch prices of $1,577.01 and $274.26 last year.
The total cost for sidewalk snow removal is assessed to property owners, while the costs for parking lots is covered by the city. Property owners also pay 53.42% of the costs for streets and alleys, with the city picking up the rest. Snow removal costs for 2021-22 totaled $100,730.52 for 60.5 inches of snow. Costs for sidewalks more than doubled from the 2018-19 season to last year, even though the seasons saw similar snowfall totals.
After discussing the prices last month and the fact that only one business bids on the contract each year, council members invited downtown business and property owners to provide feedback, with an option to eliminate the special services district on the table.
Kirsch laid out her thoughts in a memo to the council and reiterated them during the public forum Monday, saying she does not believe she or her landlord would be able to find a cost-effective snow removal option comparable to the level of service provided through the special services district.
It is an extra tax on downtown business owners — not for an extra service like sidewalk snow removal or flower beautification. Those are excellent. We should pay for those.
While city staff could theoretically take on the endeavor of clearing downtown, it would not be given the same level of priority as it is through the contract with Tom’s Backhoe, and the additional work would mean sacrificing timely plowing in other areas of town, according to city officials.
“As a small business, I have to compete with big box stores who are able to pay snow removal contractors to clear out parking lots/etc., and worry that removing this service from the downtown district would pose an obstacle for customers wanting to shop local,” Kirsch wrote to the council.
Fellow downtown business owners Theresa Woodward and Brenda Billman-Arndt shared similar thoughts as Kirsch. Woodward owns CatTale’s Books & Gifts on Laurel and said she is responsible for the parking lot behind her store but would not be able to complete the work herself at a lower cost than the assessment from the city.
While noting the value of the district, Kirsch still encouraged the council to explore any cost-saving measures they could, suggesting a look into how much it would cost the city to purchase their own equipment and hire extra employees for the job.
Ed Menk, owner of E.L. Menk Jewelers, and Ed Shaw, who owns Sage on Laurel with his wife, Sarah Hayden Shaw, both supported the district but said there could be alternative methods of assessment.
Right now, property owners are assessed on a front footage basis, paying a specific rate per foot of sidewalk, street and alley that abuts their property. Menk proposed a square footage assessment system, which he said would be more fair to those with corner lots.
Shaw noted those who own property in downtown Brainerd already pay taxes for snow removal and street upkeep in the rest of the city — just as all property owners do — and then pay the special services district assessment on top of that.
“It is an extra tax on downtown business owners — not for an extra service like sidewalk snow removal or flower beautification. Those are excellent. We should pay for those,” Shaw said. “But street snow removal that everyone else gets included in their taxes, we don’t.”
Going forward, Shaw requested the council to consider street snow removal downtown to be handled the same way it is in other areas of the city but said he is happy to pay for extra items, like sidewalk snow removal and landscaping.
That idea of an extra tax has been a bone of contention with Steve and Lois Hensel, who own Loidé Oils & Vinegars, in recent years . Though the Hensels did not appear at Monday’s meeting, they sent a letter to the council formally contesting the assessed costs for services in the special services district from last year and requested the council thoroughly examine the negative impact of double taxation.
“The beautification of the City of Brainerd benefits every single person who enters the city,” the Hensels wrote in their statement, later saying most of their customers do not notice the flowers and have said the beautification efforts are not why they come downtown.
Two other downtown property owners submitted letters supporting the special services district.
Council members Gabe Johnson and Mike O’Day said they supported the idea of looking into a square footage-based assessment, and Kevin Stunek said he liked Menk’s suggestion of at least moving to that model for corner lots.
Deciding it was too late in the season to make changes to the district at this point, council members accepted the bid from Tom’s Backhoe and agreed to discuss alternative assessment methods going forward.