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Ottertail approves $6,600 expenditure after much debate

After plentiful, and somewhat heated, public discussion at the city's last two council meetings, the Ottertail City Council has decided to give $6,600 to the Ottertail Business Persons Association.

The decision came during a Dec. 22 special meeting, after a request at a Dec. 17 regular city council meeting for the city to provide financial assistance to the annual Smokin' Iron Truck and Tractor Pull held in the city limits. The initial request was for $5,000 from the city, with the topic of helping Smokin' Iron brought up by council member Myron Lueders.

According to Lueders, community members had approached him prior to the Dec. 17 meeting and were questioning why the city took a "negative" approach to handling Smokin' Iron issues. Lueders expressed his support for the event, and said he believed the council was willing to do whatever they legally could to help the event.

"We have a guideline that we have to go by when we get money, saying how we can spend it," city clerk Elaine Hanson explained at the council meeting. She then proceeded to read three stipulations that must be met in order for a function/organization to receive money from the city.

The League of Minnesota Cities provided the city with information that states that "in order for an expenditure of public funds to be lawful" it must meet certain standards. One of the areas in question with a donation directly earmarked to assist Smokin' Iron is that there must be a public purpose for the expenditure.

According to the information cited by Hanson, "The Minnesota Supreme Court has followed a liberal approach, and has generally concluded that "public purpose" means an activity that meets all of the following standards:

1) The activity will benefit the community as a body.

2) The activity is directly related to functions of government.

3) The activity does not have as its primary objective the benefit of a private interest."

In order to support Smokin' Iron, the council would need to decide that the event, which is run by the Ottertail Business Persons Association, a nonprofit organization, meets all of the three listed standards. One of the main struggles council members had in discussing the topic was the issue of "benefiting a private interest."

Business owners and concerned citizens turned out in record numbers for both the Dec. 17 and Dec. 22 meetings of the city council, urging the council to "find a way" to help support Smokin' Iron.

The request to the Ottertail City Council for financial assistance developed as a result of some financial difficulties Smokin' Iron is facing. In order to continue the pull for 2010, pull organizer Terry Wagenman told the council that they needed $25,000. Business owners and other community organizations had committed to raising $20,000, according to Wagenman, leaving an additional amount of a little over $5,000 needed to make the event possible this coming year.

One of the parties in attendance Dec. 17 questioned councilman Terry Wagenman, who also spearheads the Smokin' Iron pull, what the mission for the event was when Wagenman helped with first getting it started up eight years ago. "Our mission statement was to make it profitable and put the profits back toward the city," Wagenman answered.

At the Dec. 22 special meeting held to discuss options regarding Smokin' Iron, the council voted unanimously (with Wagenman abstaining) for the city to make a payment to the Ottertail Business Persons Association for the amount of $6,666.67. The motion approved did not specify what the funds were to be used for, other than "for the promotion of the city."

As a result of the city council meetings, gatherings of members of the business association, and informal meetings with various community leaders from Ottertail and surrounding towns, several other ideas were generated to help provide future financial support for the Smokin' Iron event.

Event organizers plan to look into the possibility of obtaining some grant monies, in addition to generating more income through some creative changes to the event such as possibly coordinating the dates of the pull with Perham's Turtle Fest city celebration. The hope is that this would result in a larger turnout for both events.