Rice Lake has judge evaluate potential incorporation
For a few hours Friday, the Rice Lake Town Hall was transformed into a makeshift courtroom. A judge presided at the front of the modest meeting space, which includes blue brick walls and an exposed ceiling, as an attorney sat at a folding table a...
For a few hours Friday, the Rice Lake Town Hall was transformed into a makeshift courtroom.
A judge presided at the front of the modest meeting space, which includes blue brick walls and an exposed ceiling, as an attorney sat at a folding table and questioned witnesses. Half a dozen observers watched from a gallery of metal folding chairs.
The scene lacked the typical elegance of a courtroom, but the proceedings were every bit as important for the Rice Lake Township officials. After months of build-up, it was an opportunity to make their case for incorporation as a city.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” town board Chairman Greg Andrews said. “Our lawyer is totally optimistic.”
Administrative Law Judge Barbara J. Case was in town all day to tour the potential city’s infrastructure, hear testimony and gauge public interest at a public forum.
It will be up to Case to decide if the township meets the requirements for incorporation. It will likely be several months before her decision is issued, officials said.
If approved, Rice Lake would become the first township in the area to incorporate as a city since Hermantown in 1975.
The township has received letters of support from its five neighboring townships and St. Louis County. The city of Duluth, its neighbor to the south, has not objected to the proposal. Interference from neighbors could have slowed down the process by months, officials said.
The town board passed a resolution in June declaring its intent to incorporate. The proposal came after the city of Duluth approached town officials about potentially annexing a southern portion of the township.
That proposition was met with claims from some township officials and residents that Duluth was attempting to annex the territory for political purposes. Duluth Mayor Don Ness denied those allegations, but dropped the annexation bid after it failed to garner the township’s support.
As a preemptive strike, the town’s board forged ahead with incorporation plans. If it were to remain a township, officials said, Duluth could make a future takeover attempt.
“The indication that we’ve received from past meetings is that the residents of Rice Lake Township want to remain their own identity,” Andrews said. “For that reason, this is why we’re pursuing the city status.”
During Friday’s official presentation to the judge, Town Attorney Mike Couri called several employees and board supervisors to testify about the township’s suitability as a city. The judge must consider infrastructure, public services and finances among other factors in rendering a decision.
The township already has fire and public works departments. Water and sewer service is available in the southern, more urban, portion of the township, covering about 70 percent of residents. Law enforcement services are covered by a contract with the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office.
“Basically, I think we’re operating as a city already,” Town Clerk Joan Jauss said. “We’re more of a city than a township.”
Jauss said costs associated with incorporation would be minimal. While the township currently pays for three board supervisors, it would need to increase that number to five city councilors.
The city would also need to pay for the prosecution of misdemeanor and city ordinance violations within its boundaries, costing an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 per year.
But the city would also be eligible for additional Local Government Aid (LGA) from the state, Jauss said. LGA is general purpose aid that can be used for any lawful expenditure. It also is intended to be used for property tax relief.
If the incorporation goes through, the city of Duluth would annex a small portion of the southeastern portion of the township. The 240 acres of land contains city-owned athletic fields and a toolhouse, some University of Minnesota Duluth property and part of a berry farm operation.
Later in the evening, Case was scheduled to hear commentary from township residents at a public comment session. Residents also were able to submit written comments to the judge.
Midway through Friday’s hearings, Andrews said he was pleased with how the township’s presentation was going. But he wasn’t ready to make any predictions.
“Nobody can make that call but the judge,” he said.