Setting the Table: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/14/14

Not much happened at City Hall on Monday night, as the meeting had the feel of a transition from one set of big issues to another. We’re done with street fees and voting methods for the time being, while the drama surrounding the attempted recall of Councilor Gardner will unfold beyond the Council Chamber. Councilors Julsrud and Fosle were absent, leaving just seven people behind the dais. (Councilor Hanson made sure to convey the Council’s support to Councilor Fosle, whose granddaughter is undergoing surgery in the Cities.) The short and sweet meeting did, however, set the stage for several future debates that should be a bit more contentious.

First up was a public hearing on the extension of the Downtown Waterfront Special Service District. This an arrangement by which downtown businesses pay an extra tax to support the safety and beautification of the city center, an aim most notably achieved by the Clean and Safe Team, whose vivid shirts blind potential evildoers. Public hearings normally involve the Council President gaveling them into a session before promptly gaveling them closed, but tonight, the hearing was the most interesting part of the meeting, such as it was. Two speakers, Ms. Barbara Perrella of Labovitz Enterprises (whose holdings include the downtown Holiday Inn) and Ms. Kristi Stokes of the Greater Downtown Council, spoke in favor. They said the benefits of the program justified the cost and celebrated the successful public-private partnership. Mr. Craig Guzzo of Duluth Plumbing Supplies had some qualified concerns, however, including the length of time used to determine the tax, worries about duplication of duties with such organizations as Visit Duluth and the Chamber of Commerce, and the apparent lack of representation for Michigan Street businesses on the advisory council.

Councilors Gardner, Larson, and Krug all acknowledged Mr. Guzzo’s worries when the related resolutions and ordinance came up. They all said that there would be a serious effort to avoid duplication, and Councilor Gardner promised to look into the representation question. Councilor Larson said that over 75 percent of downtown businesses had expressed support for the Service District, a level of support well above the necessary threshold for renewal. The resolutions and ordinance all passed unanimously, with Councilor Gardner channeling her inner Jim Stauber by “recommending approval” on all of them.

Duluth received an award at the start of the meeting, as Mr. Paul Austin of Conservation Minnesota gave the Council a nice chunk of glass commemorating its status as a Legacy Destination for its use of public money to support conservation and the arts everywhere, from the St. Louis River corridor to the Miller Creek trout stream to restoring moose habitat. The two citizen speakers were all familiar faces as well, with Mr. Phil Fournier of AFSCME Local 66 back to complain about the city’s alleged refusal to discuss grievances and avoid arbitration. He complained that these things used to be settled in-house, and said he had polled many city employees who had similar concerns but feared retaliation of if they were to speak out. The Council then tabled a whole bunch of things, with reasons including the need for a Committee of the Whole, an attempt to align resolutions with ordinances, and a request from the absent Councilor Julsrud.

The only other measure to generate any real discussion was a lane change on College Street, which removes a lane in each direction so as to calm traffic and create a bike lane and more parking. This wasn’t controversial, but Councilor Sipress introduced an amendment to temporarily scrap a plan to include “bike boxes” at the intersections with Kenwood and 19th Ave. East. While supportive of biking, Councilor Sipress said that the Council should investigate the need for the boxes—areas in front of traffic at stoplights in which bicycles can wait before making safer left turns—before imposing them, as they prevent motorists from turning right on red. Councilor Larson and CAO Montgomery both got on board with amendment, saying there were many possible options to make biking easier, and there was no need to rush into the boxes when they could be painted on at a later date without any trouble. The amendment and resolution both went through unanimously, and the city will monitor bike usage on College Street.

Councilor Filipovich pulled a couple of infrastructure projects from the consent agenda so as to give them some love—yes, we really are fixing bad roads!—and Councilor Hanson was upbeat about the purchase of some railway land near Wade Stadium, which he figured would open up the area to possible future development. The site of the formal Central High School was also re-zoned, a move that will hopefully help the school district sell it. With that, the Council wrapped up a quick and painless meeting.

There are plenty of things on the docket for future meetings, though. Here’s a tour of several of them:

Hartley Nature Center Master Plan According to Councilor Larson, this will come forward next week.

Duluth Public Library Building Councilor Larson also plans to introduce a resolution that will begin a thorough assessment of the main branch building of the library, which has some issues.

Annexation of part of Midway Township This ordinance, read for the first time Monday, will be the next chapter in an ongoing war between Duluth and Proctor over some land with development potential to the west of the two cities.

West Side Renewal First off, the Council took a first step toward approving its matching funds for projects at Wade Stadium and Spirit Mountain, which received state bonding money, on Monday. Next up is a related ordinance, to be followed by a Committee of the Whole on a broader vision for the St. Louis River corridor later this summer. Councilor Larson made it clear she wants more input from the neighborhoods before moving too far ahead on anything. A Gary-New Duluth small area plan also passed without debate on Monday, with Councilor Gardner thanking the neighborhood for its involvement.

The DECC Casino First proposed by Councilor Hanson last meeting, this ambitious plan to recoup some of the lost revenue from the Fon du Luth Casino by turning part of the DECC into a competing casino will wait until after a closed Committee of the Whole meeting in August, if not longer. It will stay on the table for the time being. There is no real rush, as it requires consideration by the state legislature, which would not happen until its 2015 session.

That should give us plenty of time to mull over the pros and cons of the proposal. Obviously, revenue is good, but this project will have to escape the perception that this is merely a jab at the Fon du Lac tribe, and also that it promotes a vice at a time when the city is otherwise often doing war with vices. For my part, I also have serious doubts about the venue. Sure, the DECC is somewhat underused, but it’s also a unique and important event space; its loss would be a problem, and sticking a casino down there would further overcrowd the waterfront district. It would likely take a drastic remodeling no matter what. If we’re serious about this, why not kill two birds with one stone and integrate it into a redesigned St. Louis River corridor?

That’s all I’ve got for this one. If only tomorrow night’s School Board meeting would be this painless…

On Street Repair Fees: Duluth City Council Notes, 6/23/14

The Duluth City Council began its somewhat noble work Monday in a rare respite from the permanent bank of fog that has settled over downtown Duluth. The Councilors were in a cheery mood despite a rather torturous meeting last time around, and the agenda promised a resolution to a long but rather unenthusiastic debate on funding street repair in Duluth. It was the sort of thing everyone wanted done but no one wanted to pay for, and no one seemed to find the solution all that palatable, but the desire to do something prevailed.

But first, the rest of the meeting. There were two general citizen speakers. Mr. Loren Martell gave one of the more intelligent takes on his usual spiel, chiding local officials for their “false sense of urgency” in rushing through proposals that probably need more vetting. Mr. Michael Chelseth, a rising junior at Duluth East, updated the Council on the tennis court project he is spearheading for Washington Square, saying grant-matching or partial funding will likely prove necessary.

Councilor Fosle recused himself from a pair of resolutions concerning liquor licenses at events his band will play at, and Councilor Larson pulled a few more to wait for an ordinance on the Downtown Waterfront Special Service District next meeting, but the rest of the consent agenda went through. Ms. Eve Graves, who has applied to turn an East Hillside home into a “vacation dwelling unit,” gave a brief explanation of her plan for “a tree-hugger clientele” that would be carefully vetted. After Councilor Gardner said that Ms. Graves had assuaged some of the worries she’d heard from neighbors about the impact on the neighborhood, that resolution passed unanimously.

A large contingent of city planners and developers were on hand to back the proposed hotel and marina development on Pier B, the currently blighted lot across a slip from Bayfront Park. A few of the Councilors who had some reservations about such projects spoke in its favor, led by Councilor Sipress, who praised the lack of direct cash subsidies, the much-needed repairs to the slip and site cleanup, the public access, and use of union labor and wage guarantees. Councilor Russ deemed Pier B a judicious use of tax-increment financing (TIF), of which she is not normally a fan, and President Krug added that the project has “come a long way since it was just a strip mall.” It passed unanimously.

This set the stage for the main act of the evening, which was the debate over a proposed fee to finance street repair. There were seven citizen speakers, all opposed to the measure, and five of them repeat performers. Mr. Jim Booth ordered the Council to eliminate vague “amenities,” while Ms. Sue Connor tried to hash out the details on the possible-double tax and wondered why this was different from the street light fee they’d all railed against at the previous meeting. Another speaker suggested a hard line against the Fon du Luth Casino to recover lost revenue, while Mr. Bob Woods made the accurate observation that the “councilors’ facial expressions are half the fun” of  coming to the meetings, and another man made an analogy involving geese. Chamber of Commerce President David Ross joined the critics to denounce the disproportionate impact of the fee on businesses, with even small businesses charged several times the amount of a home, and large businesses charged at an exponential level.

Councilor Fosle asked a few procedural questions that outlined what was at stake: the fee would raise $2.8 million in a full year ($1.2 million in a pro-rated 2014), and would need to be re-approved in the annual fee ordinance that normally comes before the Council every November or December (including this year), or else it would reset to zero. Councilor Fosle also spoke in opposition to the measure, calling it a “cover-up” by the administration that would allow them to hide behind the Council. “Don’t blame the casino,” he added, noting former Councilor Jim Stauber’s insights on street repair funding, and threw out a few vague ideas for raising funds. He said the issue hadn’t received much press (debatable, though there wasn’t exactly a huge media rush before tonight’s vote), and that the Council would be able to ram this through despite citizen objections since they’d dismiss so many of the speakers as the same old people raising the same old complaints. He was joined in dissent by Councilor Filipovich, who repeated his claim from the previous meeting: fees ought to be discussed during the regular budget process.

Several Councilors then set out to defend the fee, though they showed about as much enthusiasm for it as they might for a lobotomy. Everyone was careful to thank the citizens for their input and acknowledge various concerns. Councilor Russ said she’d prefer a tax increase to a fee and complained that it only covered half of what needed to be done, but concluded by saying “it’s hard to find a different way.” Councilors Larson and Gardner mounted a defense of “amenities” or “quality of life” expenditures, saying the investments are necessary, and that the outcry had been far worse several years earlier when the Council did move to slash Parks and Rec and library services. Councilors Sipress and Julsrud emphasized that this was only a stopgap until the city found a better overall solution, and that they would not renew it continually. “There’s a sunset for my vote” in favor of the fee, said Councilor Sipress, while Councilor Juslrud complained of U.S. infrastructure construction in Iraq and Afghanistan while federal spending (preferably funded by a gas tax) languished in the States.

Councilor Filipovich spoke for a second time to ask for “big ideas” to solve the problem, and expressed optimism that some could be found; CAO Montgomery rained on his parade and said it would be “risky to assume this,” and that another solution was “just not there” for the time being, given the “totality of the issue.” Councilor Filipovich peppily urged the CAO to have some faith, while Councilor Fosle expressed his complete lack of faith in a possible future renegotiation of the fee. Councilor Hanson thanked Councilor Filipovich for his “courage,” and applauded the city for doing its best in the budget crunch; he said there was “no hidden money anywhere,” and took shots at the two previous administrations for their handling of employee health benefits and street repair funding. He then announced that he was launching a plan to convert the DECC into a for-profit, city-run casino. Duluth: the Vegas of the Midwest!

In the end, the new fee passed 6-3, with Councilors Filipovich, Fosle, and Hanson in opposition. The related resolution and ordinance that set the fee and allowed for its collection passed by the same margin. The Council then wrapped up its evening, and for once a Duluth governmental body wrapped up its meeting when there was still daylight. There was some sense that they’d done something just for the sake of doing something, but lots of people are unhappy with street repair; the lack of diversity among the opposition speakers suggests most people are reluctantly on board with the fee. Still, the invocation throughout can’t be emphasized enough: this is not a long-term fix, and while the city can certainly pursue state or federal solutions, it cannot rely on them. Street repair is an unending problem in this city, and will likely remain in the fog for the foreseeable future. The debate will go on, and that’s not a bad thing.