NEW ULM - Controversy emerged Tuesday during the New Ulm City Council's vote to pursue gaining control of the Marktplatz Mall sign in the City Hall parking lot.
Randy Danielson, owner of the southern portion of the mall, claims he was deliberately shut out of his chance to speak at the Council meeting. He attended the meeting and approached the podium during the comment section. It was indicated he was being asked to wait, allowing Councilor Les Schultz to speak about New Ulm Chamber of Commerce's strong interest in the sign. The exact moment Schultz finished speaking, Councilor Ken RockVam offered the motion to approve the agenda item. He was instantly provided a second, followed by a unanimous vote to approve the item.
The agenda item in question proposed instructing the City Attorney to proceed with removing all competing interests in the sign to allow the City of New Ulm to either remove the sign or repurpose it for a new use. The sign was built in 2001, with an agreement between the City and the former Marktplatz owner John Petroff. The City agreed to fund $20,000, or 66 percent, of the total cost in exchange for 20 percent of the message time. The agreement was for 10 years, which has lapsed. Marktplatz owners were expected to give the City notice of interest in negotiating a new sign agreement 180 days before the end of the 10 years. The agreement allows the City to remove the sign and bill the mall owners for the cost if no notice has been given.
The City claims no notice was given. Mike Strand, a member of the organization which owns the northern half of the mall, claims he spoke with the City when he visited last year. He said they will consider litigation if the City proceeds without getting their approval, but he said the sign was a very low priority for them.
The sign has not been operated for approximately two years due to needed repairs and occasional non-payment of utilities. The sign cost $200 in utilities when operation. The City has been paying the first $100 of the utility bill every month.
The Tuesday vote does not determine what the City will do with the sign when it gains ownership. The decision will be made at a later Council meeting. The tentative plan is to either have the City remove to sign to create additional parking space or repair the sign with intent of using it to promote local city affairs.
The Council also approved a $3,900 annual salary hike for the New Ulm mayor and a $2,000 annual salary hike for each city councilor. The mayor's new annual salary will be $10, 500 and each councilor's annual salary will be $8,000.
The last two times the Council approved salary increases were by $1,200 in 2007 and 1999. Any salary increase by the Council will go into effect in 2013 and must be approved prior to the November election.
The City provided data of how comparative cities pay their mayor and councilor. Currently, the New Ulm Mayor is paid $6,600 and the councilors are paid $6,000. On the lower end, Fairmont pays $4,800 to the mayor and $2,400 to councilors, plus $7,572 in single health insurance or $14,292 in family health insurance. In the middle, North Mankato pays $8,600 to the mayor and $5,800 to councilors with no health insurance. At the top, Fergus Falls pays $12,900 to the mayor and $7,800 to councilors plus they can enroll in city health insurance.
Council Chair Charles Schmitz said that the mayor and councilors' salaries had not been examined like other City employee salaries for years. He said findings showed New Ulm paid both the mayor and councilors on the very low end for Minnesota cities. He argued the increase would put payments in a more normal range for Minnesota.
RockVam initially expressed serious concerns with the size of the increases, particularly for the mayor.
"Ultimately, the buck stops with us," said RockVam. "We're the one those that have to hold the line on spending."
Councilor Ruth Ann Webster argued that the mayor's increase was justified due to the massive amount of ceremonial obligations he must perform beyond Council meetings.
The Council unanimously approved the motion. The motion does not change the annual salary for Public Utilities Commission members.
The Council discussed an ordinance aimed at changing animal regulation for New Ulm, which included the provision that would allow Chammy the horse to remain in New Ulm. Chammy is owned by New Ulm resident Dr. Charles Hintz and has developed a strong local following. The horse was previously subject to eviction due to violating City codes, but the Council postponed the proceedings to draw a new animal ordinance.
The ordinance allows owners that have permanently kept animals in New Ulm residences prior to the ordinance to maintain the animals until their death or removal, at which point the right it terminated. Along with that, the City is allowed to enforce on a case-by-case basis actions it deems necessary to ensure the health and conditions of the animal. The ordinance also expands non-commercial pet ownership to guinea pigs, rabbits, fish, ferrets, non-venomous reptiles, frogs, toads, salamanders and turtles. It allows animals to be kept wholesale or retail sale in businesses zoned for areas for such sales. Finally, it allows exemptions from animal regulations for 48 hours for exhibition or demonstration purposes.
The Council generally approved of the ordinance, though it instructed the City's attorneys to clarify some points before it would approve an ordinance.
Assistant City Attorney Roger Hippert noted that the word "permanent" could be difficult to prove and suggested revising it to specify a number of days it would have been in New Ulm.
Webster noted she had received several e-mails from residents concerned over Chammy's health and living conditions after it featured in several media reports. She also wanted there to be a guarantee that the proposed agreement between Hintz and the person who originally reported an excess manure violation would be enforced. She suggested requiring the Hintz and any other applicable owners have to apply for permit to keep the animal until death. She said a fee for the permit would cover inspection cost and conditions.
RockVam, who was previously the most vocal supporter of an animal ordinance to allow Chammy's stay, partially reversed himself by stating he wanted the regulations to be much more strict. He said that after consideration, he thought it would be inappropriate to have any further animals inside of the city. He said he wanted the ordinance to allow Chammy to stay, but effectively end animals in the City beyond allowed pets. He also noted he would like the time frame for exhibiting animals doubled to account for the length of farm shows in New Ulm.
The Council sent the ordinance to the City Attorney's office for redrafting.
Finally, the Council approved the Mathiowetz Construction's $1,573,855 bid for the Minnesota River Levee Project. The bid came in 8 percent below an engineer's estimate, saving the City approximately $200,000. The project is set to begin construction in the middle of this month.
Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at email@example.com.