Blustering Outside, Calm Inside: Duluth City Council Notes, 4/28/14

28 Apr

A vicious wind has howled through Duluth all day on Monday, and the City Council made similarly breezy work of its agenda tonight. There was nothing remotely controversial on the docket, and Member Gardner, busy hobnobbing with Michele Obama, was absent. (Councilor Julsrud had also been in D.C. this week and just made it back in time, and earns a gold star from me for mentioning her visit to Georgetown.) It all made for a rather tame night. Maybe everyone was sick of this God-awful weather, or maybe everyone just wanted to get home in time to watch the Wild in Game Six. (Mission accomplished.)

While the evening lacked in serious policy debate, it did bring out one of the more diverse slates of citizen speakers in recent memory. It was an eclectic group: some familiar faces, some new ones; some very predictable issues, others less so. Three of their number came to discuss potholes and street repair, and they all took the city to task for floating the idea of raising taxes to pay for these projects. Mr. Jim Booth was the most eloquent of the trio, laying out a budget for Duluth seniors on fixed income and worrying how they might survive the steady stream of tax increases. He and his colleagues also complained about the use of TIF districts to finance so many projects, and said the tax burden might drive young families to surrounding communities instead of Duluth.

Two speakers, backed by a group of supporters, came to demand action on homelessness in Duluth. Ms. Rebecca Domagala of the Human Rights Commission reminded the Councilors of their move toward a homeless bill of rights in January, but said nothing had been done since, as the HRC has only two sitting members and needs people appointed to its open seats to fulfill its function. Mr. Joel Kilgour echoed these sentiments and openly questioned the city’s commitment to its project, citing a Mayor Ness quote from a recent interview and passing out a petition in support of the bill of rights.

One of the more unique speakers was Ms. Ashley Wallace, a social work student at the College of St. Scholastica, who was joined by a row of classmates in the Council Chamber. She used her three minutes to bring further awareness to human trafficking in the Duluth area and Minnesota in general. She broke out a few memorable statistics, saying that roughly half of Minnesota’s prostitutes are trafficked, and that their average starting age is 14. The issue remained under the radar due to the lack of organizations specifically committed to combating human trafficking, though she did cite PAVSA for its work and plugged the FORTE Act making its way through Congress. Beyond that, one other speaker spoke against raising the minimum wage, and a few of the usual suspects were back to repeat familiar talking points.

Everything on the agenda on Monday night passed unanimously, with the exception of the railway land purchase for the Cross-City Trail that was pulled back to the Administration now that Mayor Ness has backed off the original trail route immediately west of Lincoln Park. Councilor Larson took a moment to talk up the work done by partner organizations on Spirit Mountain trails, while Councilor Sipress explained that a budget amendment for pothole repair this spring used previously allocated funds and had nothing to do with the broader debate on possible taxation for a long-term street plan.

In the closing comments, most of the talk revolved around the street repair plans. Councilor Julsrud counseled the people worried about rising taxes to “relax,” saying they were just beginning the public input portion of the streets plan, and that she expects to come to a deal that makes most people happy in time. Councilors Larson and Filipovich sounded similar notes, and Councilor Filipovich told of his fun weekend spend putting out (literal) fires at a Fire Ops 101 event. Councilor Fosle rumbled to life near the end of the comments with a meandering speech on a number of fees and taxes on electricity-related services, complaining of double taxation and asking to know where all the money goes. While it might appear to be “micromanaging,” he said it was important to dig into these details to avoid spending money on “frilly things,” as the city has done in the past, and also complained of “top-heavy employment” in the Ness Administration’s decision to fill and create several high-paying city government positions. President Krug nodded to some of his qualifications and said his voice would be an important one in future debates, bringing a conciliatory end to the evening after the two of them had sparred some at the previous meeting. With that, the Council’s work was done, and everyone went back out into the elements, which were far more likely to inspire vulgar reactions than anything said inside City Hall on Monday night.

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