By MaryHelen Swanson
Two North Branch councilors called a halt to the city council meeting Monday night when the discussion over a liquor license became dragged out and complicated.
A council of four was not acceptable to JE North Branch Liquor 2012 LLC (trade name: County Market Liquor) and their consultant Darcy Winter asked, prior to the meeting Monday night, if the council would table action on the license until all five members could be present.
Due to health issues, Mayor Amy Oehlers was not present and Councilor Kathy Blomquist conducted the meeting as the designated acting mayor.
JE North Branch Liquor plans to purchase Tower Liquors of Branch, Inc. Their intent is to operate the liquor store at its present location until a spot next to the County Market store is prepared for a new store with about one-third the space.
JE has applied to the city for an off-sale liquor license to operate the store once purchased.
When they are ready to move the operation to the new site, they would have to apply for a second license to operate at that site.
Off-sale licenses must also be approved by the state Alcohol and Gambling Division once a city approves it.
While it is typical that a city with a municipal liquor store does not allow a privately held license, the exception here is that when Branch and North Branch merged into one city, the Tower liquor store was in essence grandfathered in.
A host of supporters was on hand this week to encourage the council to approve the license. And occasional shouts from the audience urged the councilors to move forward that night.
But that wasn’t what JE North Branch Liquor wanted, preferring to wait for a full council.
Acting Mayor Blomquist had concerns about decreased sales at the municipal liquor store if this plan of action should take place.
She pushed for a feasibility study to see what effect the County Market liquor store would have on the profits of the municipal store.
She noted that profits of around $100,000 a year are used by the city for a number of things, and if the store failed to make a profit and had to close, the city might have to raise taxes to make up for the revenue loss.
The council was prepared to vote on tabling the action, but Blomquist continued pursuit of a feasibility study making a motion with a second from Councilor Joel McPherson. An estimate figure of $8,000 was tossed out as the possible cost of such a study.
Blomquist said she would like to be assured that the city wouldn’t lose money, for the sake of the taxpayers.
Winter, at the public podium, explained that the new store they had planned would be only about one-third the size of the current operation on Tanger Drive, offering wine and beer, the kind of beverages one might pick up to go with dinner, being next to the grocery store.
She believed it would be the better of two evils for NB, should somebody else purchase the Tower store.
When the vote on the feasibility study failed 2-2, with Furman and Lindquist opposed, Blomquist continued on trying to make another motion to form a committee of councilors, city staff and County Market personnel to negotiate, but there was no second.
By this time people in the audience were getting anxious, councilors were becoming frustrated and it was then that Lindquist announced the meeting was over. He got up and left, as did Councilor Furman.
The abrupt conclusion left a number of agenda items on the table.
More hours needed for building inspector
Earlier in the meeting City Administrator Bridgitte Konrad asked the council for additional hours for the building official as building activities are increasing.
As of July 31 the city had issued 215 building permits, 10 of which were for new residential homes and 13 for commercial/industrial construction.
With nine of the residential and two commercials projects currently being reviewed, the 36 hours allowed for the building official are not enough, Konrad said.
She proposed that his hours be increased to 40 per week through the end of October at a cost of $2,200.
For the past two weeks Konrad had already approved 40 hours for the city’s one official because those additional hours were really needed, she said.
But the council would not agree on the increased time, even if it were balanced out and budget neutral by the end of the year.
So on a 2-2 vote, Councilors Ron Lindquist and Theresa Furman voting yes and (acting mayor) Kathy Blomquist and Joel McPherson voting no, a motion to allow the city administrator to increase hours as necessary failed.
“It stays at 36,” commented Lindquist after the vote.
In other business, the council:
• Approved Dane Olson and Lindsey Koolmo moving from probationary status to firefighter status. Olson has previously been on another fire department and Koolmo has completed FF1 and FF2 training requirements. “Both members have shown they will be an asset to the North Branch Fire Department in the future,” noted Fire Chief Kevin Grote.
• Received the police activity report for the first six months of 2012 showing the department handled 3,424 incidents/calls for service. Under a new system now, the report includes such things as squad checks, routine business checks and traffic stops with only a verbal warning.
Still, Police Chief Dan Meyer noted that there is a slight increase in calls/incidents from the first six months of 2011, which was recorded as 2,691.
• Accepted a new policy for benefits for employees who are Medicare eligible. The city contributes to employees Health Savings Accounts. Under new IRS regulations, the city cannot contribute to an employees HSA when he or she becomes eligible for Medicare.
The new plan approved by the council, after much discussion, notes that the city will contribute the equivalent HSA amount to the Medicare eligible employee’s Flex Spending Account or to a Post 65 Medicare supplement.