Roundabout discussions inch along

Milaca – While two discussions took place recently regarding the roundabout to be constructed in Princeton this summer at Highway 95 and 21st Avenue North/County Road 157, no decisions have been made about the source of “local funding” needed for the project, about $490,000.

The Mille Lacs County Board talked again at its May 2 meeting about the possibility of providing some funds for the project from proceeds of the local-option sales tax the county enacted last year, and the Princeton City Council went into closed session after its May 4 and May 11 meetings to talk about pending litigation regarding the roundabout.
A traffic flow and safety solution for the intersection has been discussed for about 10 years, more so since the Rivertown Crossing area began to develop. The entire project cost is estimated at $1.63 million, and the other funding comes from state and federal sources, some of which are grants with an expiration date.
According to information given previously, Princeton had been planning to fund its part of the project through assessments, either citywide or to benefiting property owners. The city had decided that because not everyone in the city uses that road and intersection, the assessment should be to benefiting property owners. Those owners protested the proposed assessments, estimated to be between $1,614 to $39,272 each for a total of 26 pieces of property, some with the same owner.
After some owners threatened an appeal that would essentially postpone the project possibly for years, Princeton began to seek other ways to fund its share of the project. It asked the county to contribute some local-option tax funds since 21st Avenue North is also County Road 157.
The majority of county commissioners had not been in favor of the idea of using the tax funds, because before it could enact the tax, it had to define the list of 10 transportation projects on which the tax money would be spent. It required a long process, including a series of public meetings that the county does not want to redo. County board members had concern about constituents’ perception if the county repeated the process to add a road.
The commissioners were critical that the road was never mentioned during the time the county gathered information about priority projects. Princeton said at that time it had the funding identified.
In a County Board workshop May 2, commissioners discussed the idea of doing some research to see if it made sense to allocate local-sales tax revenue to the roundabout project. Board Chairman Roger Tellinghuisen suggested taking a poll to see if a majority of the commissioners were even in favor of the idea before they instructed county staff to spend more time on research.
In the end, Commissioner Tim Wilhelm pushed for the board to do research and then consider funding the project or part of it. Commissioner David Oslin was open to helping with the project cost but not necessarily with sales-tax funds. Commissioners Phil Peterson, Genny Reynolds and Roger Tellinghuisen said they would not vote for the option to use local sales tax funds to help. Since the three would constitute a majority of the board against the idea, the body decided to do no further research.
County Engineer Bruce Cochran outlined the draft agreement between Princeton and Mille Lacs County for the county to serve as the fiscal agent on the roundabout project. Since Princeton has a population under 5,000, the county will accept state and federal grant money to pay the project bills.
He said not all of the project would be eligible for sales-tax funds anyway because Highway 95 (where the roundabout will sit) is a state road that receives state aid; therefore, it is not eligible for any local-sales tax revenue. He said the most that could come from the sales tax proceeds for the roundabout is $131,000.
The group discussed some of the contributions the county made toward planning and engineering of the roundabout project “way back when,” as well as what it will contribute in staff effort for the contract administration – about a month’s time.
County Administrator Pat Oman said the city and the county had met for a discussion April 18, and he had shared with the city many other possible options for funding the local share of the project. Those included a city franchise fee, bonds, assessment and some other options.
Reynolds said she was hearing that the assessed Princeton property owners had a problem with the assessment formula and didn’t think it was fair that people who own a corn field pay the same amount as a big retailer. The commissioners speculated that Princeton had originated the formula.
Princeton’s engineering consultant with WSB, Andy Brotzler, had presented the roundabout feasibility study at the April 13 City Council meeting, at which time the members authorized the firm to do a small study on funding options. Brotzler said a presentation on the options and a public hearing on the project would happen at the 7 p.m. May 25 Princeton City Council meeting.
A communications representative with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, J.P. Gillach, said the agency is waiting to hear back from the city about the funding. He confirmed that the project is on the books and “ready to go for this year.”