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Common Currency: Council earns 'good marks' on recent issue

Alan Zemek

The tension in the room was palpable, the issues complex and vexing, yet the city council did some heavy lifting last week under the glare of public scrutiny. For a policy junky like me it was better drama than a good episode of Law & Order.

The issue before the council was an orderly annexation agreement with Todd Township that has been on the books for a decade. The discussions were sharp but not uncivil, and quite revealing of local government action at its best, and sometimes at its less than ideal.

For example, there is a fine line between selfish and self interest. It is certainly reasonable for property owners in the annexation area to question the financial feasibility of sewer and water assessments without a demonstration of need of them. That's self interest.

But how a couple of individual township property owners managed to deal themselves out of the annexation agreement while in negotiations with the city 10 years ago was just plain selfish. As the saying goes, the light of day is the best disinfectant.

The issue for the city of Park Rapids is some $300,000 already invested in deferred assessments that are on the books for sewer and water improvements that were made in good faith as required by the agreement.

The city has performed its obligations under the contract and could insist upon the entire annexation. But it would cram down a financial hardship on a small group of property owners. That would be selfish. Economic circumstances are clearly not what the annexation agreement anticipated 10 years ago.

On the other hand, it is also proper and reasonable for the city council to protect its bonding capacity, credit rating, and ultimately all of the city's existing taxpayers before abandoning the annexation agreement simply because it is not a convenient time for a couple dozen property owners who have known for 10 years that annexation was coming. That is self interest, and there is nothing wrong with that.

The conclusion: It looks like common sense will prevail and a sensible compromise is in the works. Nobody dodged the issues and nobody passed the buck. The city council should get good marks on this one.

It will probably be quite awhile before the city adopts any new annexation agreements, and that is okay. With the economy the way it is today there is no pressing need to grow bigger. But we do need to grow better, and the city needs to raise the level of its game.

The city council has a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers to act responsibly, but simply hunkering down because times are tough is not a strategy for economic recovery, and doing nothing is a slow but certain slide into oblivion.

As a legacy of the collapse in construction activity after the housing crisis in 2008 there are currently over 100 vacant residential building lots in the city limits of Park Rapids, along with several orphaned commercial properties of significant size. The city still has major infrastructure needs to update its water wells and replace obsolete sewer lines that are a crisis waiting to happen.

After several years of large projects a prudent pause is not unwelcome, but we are not out of the woods yet. Economic recovery has been slow in coming and it is time for the city to put everything on the table, including a local option sales tax, the state's bonding bill and maybe even a regionalization plan for the airport, a perennial money loser for the city's taxpayers.

We can and should promote our self interest, but we should not be selfish in doing so. This is how our democracy is supposed to work. This time it did. Let's hope it works as well on the next one.

Alan J. Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website, www.genera