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Benson to give back $167,000 from MnDOT as city cannot match funding

BENSON -- Benson is returning a $167,000 Minnesota Department of Transportation grant because the city can't afford the required match.

Benson City Council decided Monday the city needed to return a MnDOT grant it received in 2006 because Benson can't afford its share of the deal.

"We made the decision to return that grant back to the state because, frankly, we can't afford the matching portion," said City Manager Rob Wolfington.

The city received the grant in 2006 for a trail extension that would cost about $280,000 to build, Wolfington said. Benson had to match 20 percent of the grant funded by MnDOT.

Wolfington said the city's portion of funding would have been increased because the grant required federal government engineering.

"By the time you pay your 20 percent and the engineering, it's about a 50/50," Wolfington said.

"Frankly, we can do the work ourselves cheaper without going through the fancy-pants engineering and all that stuff."

The project was scheduled to begin in 2010 as part of MnDOT's state transportation improvement plan, Wolfington said. In dollars and cents, the city would owe $114,928 to MnDOT's $167,000 for the project.

"Before we spend $115,000 on a transportation project in this economy, it probably wouldn't be a walking trail," Wolfington said. The City Council could have rolled the project back to 2012, Wolfington said, but "to be honest, we didn't think we'd be any better off in 2012 than in 2009."

Wolfington said the city has the materials, labor and equipment to build the trail extension on its own without the grant.

"If the city had $115,000 of cash, we could build it for less than that probably," he said. The trail wouldn't be paved right away, Wolfington said, but the city could complete a majority of the construction for less money.

The city wanted to return the grant before it was too late for the state to find a way to distribute the returned money, Wolfington said.

"If you get on the 'bad boys list,' you might not get another one (grant)," he said.

In other business:

* The City Council informed Centerpoint Energy that Benson will consider starting its own natural gas franchise. Wolfington said if the city introduces the franchise, Benson could make about $50,000 annually from the municipal utility offering.

* The council approved a city ordinance that allows outdoor cafés on downtown sidewalks. Wolfington said the city has one downtown business owner interested in offering an outdoor café. In a previous interview, Wolfington said the cafés could lead to more commerce and improve the nightlife and color of downtown Benson.