Can you dig it?

Divided city council finally approves excavator purchase

The third time proved the charm.

Or the harm, depending on what side of the debate you ended up on.

On its third appearance at a regular Dillon City Council meeting in recent months, the proposal to purchase an excavator finally gained council approval on July 19.

But only by a 5-3 vote, and only after more than an hour of discussion that gouged an even deeper divide filled with even murkier water separating some members of the council and the city administration and its council supporters on the issue.

Under the now-approved plan, the City of Dillon will instead of leasing an excavator from a private company, as it has in the past, purchase its own excavator for repairing streets and performing some other heavy maintenance duties.

Money from the purchase will come from the city’s water & sewer R&D and/or its sewer bond account loaned to its gas tax account.

One of those accounting maneuvers needs to be employed because the gas tax account, unlike those other accounts, is legally authorized to use up to 25 percent of its funds for a qualified capital equipment purchase, such as an excavator.

But as they had during the council’s previous two forays into the matter, some on the council still questioned whether the move would be legally, or even fiscally, sound.

And they were still asking those same questions by the end of the July 19 meeting where the excavator purchase was approved—after the vote on it had been postponed at two previous council meetings until more information could be gathered.

“Once again, you have succeeded in clarifying and then muddying the waters,” City Council President Tom Straugh told City Attorney Jim Dolan on July 19 after Dolan delivered the legal opinion on the excavator purchase the council requested from him as part of its tabling the matter at its meeting on July 5—two weeks after it had tabled a vote on the proposal at its previous regular meeting.

Straugh’s comment came directly after Dolan advised the council that in his opinion, if the city used 25 percent or less from the gas tax fund for the excavator purchase, “as far as the legality of that, I find no issue with it.”

But Dolan added that the Montana Department of Transportation had, when he approached it, essentially punted rather than offer an opinion on the matter. And that Heidi Giem, the accountant from who last audited the city’s books, had “raised the concern whether the payments [for the excavator] would be a qualifying capital equipment expenditure versus just buying a piece of equipment itself, which we couldn’t, I don’t believe, if I understand the numbers, be able to do with that portion of the gas tax, the way it is allocated to the city.”

Dolan advised that the only way to get a more definitive legal opinion on the matter would be to consult the Montana Attorney General’s office, something Klakken, at least at first, expressed reluctance to do.

Councilperson Jim McIsaac, the chair of the council’s Finance Committee, said that his recent examinations of the budget convinced him the city may not be able to afford the excavator. Even though the $17,000 annual payments on the purchase of the excavator across seven years would be less than the $20,000 the city currently pays to lease one for six months, McIsaac noted that the city already has a lot of money committed and that the amount the state contributes to the gas tax fund could decline in years to come.

“The thing is, we are going to do the streets for half the cost,” said Klakken, of the financial advantage of owning an excavator and using city employees to operate it, as opposed to leasing one and paying a contractor to do the repairs.

“Please go tell the public you do not want to fix the streets. Or you want to do half of what I want to do. And then tell me what they say to you,” said Klakken, who estimated the city’s street crew would be able to fully repair one and a half blocks per year with its own excavator, which could also be used by other city departments for tasks requiring an excavator, such as digging up storm drains.

Questions were also raised about how much repair costs the city could incur maintaining the excavator once its warranty expires.

City employees could perform routine maintenance on the excavator, Klakken contended, though major repairs would have to be done by an expert mechanic and would, after the warranty expired, become an added expense for the city.

At the end of the discussion, Councilpersons Dan Nye, Bill Shafer, Don Hand, John Garry and Russ Schwandt voted in favor of purchasing the exactor, while Straugh, McIsaac and Mandy Maass cast the three ‘nays’.

Klakken said the next Water & Sewer Committee would address which exact fund the gas tax account would borrow from to make the excavator purchase.

The Water & Sewer Committee is next scheduled to meet on Tuesday, Aug. 8, at 4 p.m.