Hooray for Being Boring: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/26/13

It was an oppressively hot and humid Monday night in Duluth, with several of the audience members huddled up against the windows in search of cold air, and an impressive lightning show flickering away over the darkened harbor. But neither heat nor storms could deter the Duluth City Council from tireless debate over servicing street debt, and after draping themselves over the drinking fountain to prepare themselves, President Boyle brought down his gavel and sent the Councilors off on their marathon.

As usual, community speakers led off the meeting, and there were only two signed up, though one brought his “little elves” with him. Mr. Jeff Mass of the Duluth Children’s Museum was joined at the podium by middle-schoolers Garrett and Jenna, who told the Council about their studies of outer space, which will culminate in a ten-minute radio chat with the astronauts in the International Space Station next week. (Exact time and date TBD; their pretty flyer tells us to check the Children’s Museum website for updates.) The only other speaker, Linda Ross Sellner, wanted a clarification on some road salt purchases, which led the Council to pull the resolution from the consent agenda so that an apparent typo in the agenda could be corrected.

After that it was on to the main event of the evening, the discussion of a resolution that would service $2.23 million in street improvement bond debt via money from the Community Investment Trust (CIT). As CAO Montgomery and Councilor Gardner explained, the city had 3 options to service the debt:

1. Take the money from the general reserve fund, which might jeopardize the city’s credit rating;

2. Raise the tax levy, effectively doubling street-assessed taxes in the city;

3. Take the money from the CIT, which would prevent a tax increase and be less of a threat to the credit rating.

CAO Montgomery thus suggested that Option 3, while not ideal, was the best choice on the table; Councilors Gardner, Julsrud, Hartman, Larson, and Krug all voiced their agreement in similar terms. Taking money from the CIT, however, requires a 7-2 supermajority, and with Councilors Fosle and Stauber raising serious doubts, it became clear that Councilor Krause would be the deciding vote.

Councilor Krause admitted to being “torn” on the issue. His reservations, which were repeated by Councilors Fosle and Stauber, revolved around the city’s frequent forays into the CIT despite claims that it wouldn’t take any more money from it. He was “surprised” and “frustrated” that this had come before the Council just a year after being told the city would find a long-term fix. CAO Montgomery countered that the city’s new, pay-as-you-go street funding plan would, eventually, take this issue off the table. Councilor Stauber replied by saying that the city is still has serious unfunded debts (mostly in pensions) and is also spending money on things such as trails; even if they aren’t accruing more street debts, their approach is not totally “pay-as-you-go,” and debt will continue to be an issue.

Councilor Krug said that all of the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” out of the Councilors griping about past funding issues was “useless,” while Councilor Larson asked what realistic alternative they might propose. Councilor Fosle, more on-target than last meeting in his critiques, went back to his favorite hobbyhorse and proposed savings in vehicle maintenance; Councilor Stauber said he’d proposed a street bill that had been shunted aside, but CAO Montgomery argued parts of his proposal “would not apply.” He also disagreed with Councilor Stauber’s suggestion that the general fund had been built up by taking money from the CIT; while technically true, the funds had arrived there in a round-about way. Councilor Fosle wrapped up the hour-long discussion by saying he thought the mayor’s office, and not the Council, should be working on the street plan to resolve the issue for good.

In the end, Councilor Krause decided to vote ‘no,’ and the measure failed, with only six votes in favor. President Boyle asked CAO Montgomery what came next, and he responded by saying Administration would likely push to take the money from the general reserve fund at the next board meeting. The city does have a potential white knight in this whole affair, however: at some time in the next month, a federal court will rule on ongoing litigation between the city and the Fon Du Luth Casino, and should the city win, the $12 million settlement will easily cover the debt. While CAO Montgomery made it clear they cannot count on a positive result, the entire council was likely left hoping for a swift ruling from the courts.

Next up was the authorization of bonds to pay for the Lakewalk expansion, and Councilors Fosle, Stauber, and Krause once again held the line on further spending. Councilor Fosle grumbled about wants versus needs, while Councilor Julsrud reminded the Council that over half the project was being paid for in grant money. A simple 6-3 majority passed the ordinance, and a related second ordinance was tabled.

Several resolutions were then read for the first time, and though there was no voting on the issue, there were two speakers on a trio of proposals amending the city code on the matter of electronic cigarettes. Mr. Brian Annis, a longtime smoker who had weaned himself off tobacco by using e-cigs, told of his failed past attempts to quit, and how his conversion had inspired other smokers to switch over to the healthier alternative. He’d clearly done his research, and the Councilors were swift to invite him to an agenda session, as they had not had any defenders of e-cigs at the Committee of the Whole meeting earlier that day. Ms. Jill Doberstein of the American Lung Association countered his claims by saying electronic cigarettes “normalize” smoking, and that their use is often recreational instead of being a means of quitting. She demanded consistency from the Council in its regulation of smoking products.

The Council concluded its formal business by passing two more ordinances without debate: an amendment of city fine fees (opposed only by Councilor Krause), and a zoning change (approved unanimously). In the closing comments, Councilor Larson reminded the city of Food Truck Fridays at the public library, while Councilor Krause asked someone to look into the heavy attire facilities maintenance workers are forced to wear even in the worst summer heat. Councilor Stauber asked if a biennial actuarial study of unfunded liabilities was under way, which it was, and Councilor Hartman took a moment to thank his colleagues for the policy-driven debate about the CIT fund, even though he was unhappy with the result. He admitted it was probably “very boring for the general public,” but he had an excellent point: instead of endless “theatrics,” the Council really had gone to the heart of the issue, and in government, the boring debates often are the most productive. While the nuttiness of a Duluth School Board meeting may be more interesting to those of us trying to endure 90-degree meeting chambers, the Council continues to quietly inspire confidence, and in such a climate, the minority view may even have a better chance to win out—as Councilors Stauber, Krause, and Fosle showed tonight. Whatever one thinks of their vote, that is an encouraging thought.


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