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.

A Meeting of Epic Length: Duluth City Council Notes, 6/9/14

The Duluth City Council had a marathon for the ages on Monday night, enduring 4:20 of debate. (There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I won’t touch it.) There range of issues on the table ran the gamut, and in turn, there was a large, diverse crowd on hand to speak on many of the agenda items. For sanity’s sake I’m going to chop this post up by issue, rather than turn it into a dissertation; clarity will take priority over my aesthetic sensibilities so as to make sense of it all.

Introduction and Issues Inspiring Minimal Discussion

General community speakers included a Duluth East student announcing her presence and interest in more room for young people to participate in politics, a woman who worried about sinkholes, and a man with no apparent interest in being taken seriously. Councilor Fosle pulled a series of resolutions awarding parks grants and creating (or with the possibility of creating) new staffing positions so he could vote against them; they all passed, 8-1. There were no reports or updates on general issues of any significance, and nothing came off the consent agenda that hadn’t already been pulled.

Street Light Fees

First up was a plan to sunset the city’s unpopular street light fee, which had been tabled at the previous meeting. The resolution and related ordinance on the agenda aimed to phase out the fee by the end of 2018, but Councilor Fosle, the fee’s most vocal opponent, moved an amendment to slide that date up to 2015, repeating his stance that the fee constituted a double-tax. The amendment generated zero momentum; while Councilors Russ, Spiress, and Krug were sympathetic, they said the city couldn’t cut out that revenue so quickly without finding a replacement for lost revenue. The amendment failed, 1-8.

Supporters of the fee’s elimination then made their case. Councilor Gardner said the 2018 deadline was a long enough time frame to find an alternative, and Councilor Sipress explained his philosophical opposition to fees, which he called the “most unfair” type of tax. He later expressed support for a property tax increase to cover lost fee money, and several other Councilors signed on to that plan. Councilor Fosle did not, but he also joined the war against fees, reminding the audience of the time when Duluth made late night TV jokes for an aborted plan to impose a fee to fund fire departments and law enforcement.

Councilor Filipovich dissented, saying the discussion should be part of the annual budget process, and Councilor Larson worried about passing the burden off on future Councils and possible cuts to “quality of life services” such as libraries. The most vocal opposition, however, came from CAO Montgomery, who was as pointed as he has ever been. He was fine with the discussion, but said it should be part of the budget process, and that the lack of a funding plan ran counter to the “path to financial predictability and stability” that the administration has so desperately sought. A levy increase to cover the resultant shortfall “would not be modest,” and the city only had so much wiggle room in the amount it can levy while still covering everything else. President Krug agreed that it was “not responsible,” and thought the issue was being used to “teach a lesson on fees.”

Councilor Julsrud “completely disagree[d].” Fees, she insisted, are a “short-term fix,” not a long-term piece of the budget, and she said basic services should come through the levy. In the end, her logic prevailed by the narrowest of margins: the repeal of the fee passed 5-4, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, Julsrud, Russ, and Sipress making up the piecemeal coalition.

Street Repair Fees

The Council then moved from one fee to another and took up a proposed fee to pay for street repairs. There were nine citizen speakers on the topic, all opposed, though they came at it from different angles. Some, like Councilor Sipress in the previous exchange, claimed a fee was an unfair and regressive; others, such as Mr. Joe Kleiman, preferred a fee since it spread the burden, but opposed the heavier toll this particular fee would impose upon businesses. One speaker had issues with the process, and another suggested the city strong-arm the Fon Du Luth Casino into submission so as to regain its lost revenue.

Councilor Gardner then moved to introduce an amendment, which aimed to lessen the amount of double-taxing by limiting the assessment in the first year of the fee. There was much confusion over the language of the amendment, which led to an agonizingly long bureaucratic exchange, as amendments were made to the amendment and amendments made to the amendment to the amendment before all of the amendments were pulled and one clean one was put forward. Councilor Julsrud was its most vocal opponent, wondering about costs and saying it was only “a drop in the bucket” of the larger street picture. CAO Montgomery likewise grumbled about lost revenue, but while it would involve work, he said the amendment was “doable” when pressed by Councilor Filipovich. The amendment passed 5-4, with Councilors Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson, and Krug in support. This change was substantial enough that the ordinance must be read before the Council again at the next meeting, so the attached resolution was thus tabled as well.

Spirit Mountain

In a brief but blunt discussion, Councilor Julsrud used a resolution aiming to increase Spirit Mountain’s line of credit to “crack the whip” on its management. She complained about all of the red ink in its financials and said that “weather can’t be a repeated excuse” for an institution that must necessarily deal with winter weather. Councilor Hanson read a letter from a constituent that took Spirit Mountain to task for its failure to make payments in recent years, and noted the drastic increase in its credit limit. CAO Montgomery tried to explain the situation some, citing the particularly harsh winter as a problem, and talked up the fiscal chops of Spirit’s incoming director. Everyone echoed each other a lot, Councilor Fosle suggested they give the new director some time before grilling her, and Councilor Hanson made several abuses of figurative language. The resolution passed unanimously.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

One might think that electoral systems would not be an issue that inspires heated manifestos and bitter divisions. One would be wrong.

First, Councilor Sipress introduced an amendment that altered the language of the resolution, toning down its explicit recommendation for adopting IRV and simply asking the charter commission to study it. It also removed a timeline that sought to fast-track the charter change for a November ballot initiative. The Councilors noted that the 60 day allowance for charter commission review would likely allow enough time to get the measure on the ballot this fall if approved, so Councilor Sipress’s amendment passed fairly easily. Only Councilor Fosle spoke against it, calling it a “safeguard for a flawed system.”

Eleven citizen speakers came forward on IRV. Seven, including five locals and two people from FairVote Minnesota, an IRV advocacy group, spoke in favor of its implementation. They claimed a wide array of benefits, including greater representation of underrepresented groups, the elimination of high-cost and low-turnout primaries, and relative simplicity once voters are educated. Several also pointed to the success of the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral elections, which they said had been “more civil” due to the need for candidates to court second choice votes.

Three UMD math and statistics professors also spoke on the issue, and gave a somewhat less rosy picture of IRV. They said that, despite the shiny packaging, IRV does not perform as well under scrutiny. They cited flaws in the algorithm that lead to “voter regret,” IRV’s tendency to lock in two-party systems, and data from several cities with more extensive experience than Minneapolis that had moved away from IRV. They recommended further discussion of possible alternatives and offered to further educate the public. (One has offered to meet with me, so there will be some follow-up on this in the not-so-distant future.) A final speaker in opposition (unaffiliated with the professors) worried about the fast pace of implementation and thought the elderly and disabled would struggle to make sense of IRV.

Despite the easy passage of Councilor Sipress’s amendment, several Councilors still had strong reservations about implementing IRV. (It took a while before Councilor Hanson brought it up, but it was clear that the Council’s flailing attempt to use IRV back in February was hanging over the debate.) Councilor Julsrud mounted a defense of the primary system, saying it used highly engaged citizens to weed candidates who are not serious, and that IRV’s large election fields tend to favor “big personalities.” She suggested any move to IRV should be made in conjunction with the school board and the county so as to avoid confusion. Councilor Filipovich said he became “more skeptical” the more he learned about IRV, and that there was a fundamental question of how people’s votes are counted at play. Several Councilors also disliked the process, saying it should come from citizen demand rather than from above, and that there was no demand for change or explanation of “why now.” (This strikes me as by far the weakest counterargument; there were clearly citizens in the room who supported IRV and were trying to get things moving, and this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that needs a specific catalyst to get off the ground. If it’s properly vetted [an important ‘if’] and people approve, then go for it.)

Councilor Gardner took exception to these objections. If people really wanted to learn more, she said, they should send the recommendation on to the charter commission and let it do the work. This was their opportunity to learn more, she claimed, and it would be “closed-minded” to cut off the debate with a ‘no’ vote. Councilor Larson concurred, and insisted the conversation on IRV needed to continue.

As the debate went on, the Council’s professionalism went out the window. Councilor Fosle went into loose cannon mode, intimating that someone must be making money off the scheme to implement IRV; he also shot off about the number of speakers from Minneapolis, claiming he does not represent them. (Councilor Hanson repeated this; President Krug, an IRV champion, indignantly offered to provide addresses for all of the speakers.) Councilor Filipovich spoke far more pointedly that usual in opposition to IRV; while within the bounds of regular Council debate, President Krug tried to hurry him along, ostensibly because it was a long night and his comments weren’t all specific to the narrow intent of the resolution. Councilor Hanson continued to push her buttons with an attempt to ask questions, and while I agree that his debating style is often scattered, aimless and even grating at times (regardless of the issue), one got the clear sense that President Krug’s frustration with him had as much to do with his stance as with his method.

Councilor Hanson and President Krug traded barbs, with Hanson saying he felt like he was “being scolded by a schoolteacher,” Krug cutting him off, and Hanson saying this proved his point. The push for IRV failed 4-5, with support from Councilors Gardner, Krug, Larson, and Sipress. After the vote, President Krug topped everything off with a silly, grandstanding speech, saying “shame on you, Councilors,” for voting the proposal down, and that “you’ll have to sleep with that tonight.” Whatever the merits of a case, telling one’s colleagues that they should be ashamed of themselves has got to be among the most counterproductive options available after one has lost a close vote. President Krug leads the Council with authority, and there is much to be said for that, but she has shown an occasional tendency to allow her opinions to color her leadership and use her presidency as a bully pulpit. Her outburst at the end only confirmed this sneaking suspicion. I think (and hope) this is just an unintentional display of passion, but no matter what, it is both obvious and painful to watch. There is enough blame to go around, though: the Council lost its sense of perspective on this one.

Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Landmark Status

It was past 10:30 by the time the Council started in on an ordinance that would preserve the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial as a heritage preservation landmark, but seven speakers stuck around to support granting it that status. They cited its role as a gathering site, its importance in soothing past wounds, and its stimulation of reflection. Mr. David Woodward of the Heritage Preservation Commission explained in detail how the memorial qualified due to its place in a historic district and symbolic value, despite its relative newness. Councilor Gardner was most struck by the comments of Mr. Roger Grégoire, who said he knew of no other memorial of this type in the world, and applauded Duluth’s “extraordinary” efforts to seek “redemption.” In a vintage display of Duluthianism, if there is such a thing, Councilor Gardner said the process to establish the memorial “just seemed very natural.” The ordinance passed unanimously.  (A special Patient Cycle Award goes to speaker Portia Johnson’s teenage son, who stayed by her side through the entire night without any signs of restlessness.)

Rockridge Zoning and Conclusion

The one last thing on the agenda of some note was the re-zoning of the former Rockridge Elementary site. Mr. Mark Irving, a neighbor, stuck out the entire night to thank all parties for their work in finding a solution for everyone. It passed unanimously and without debate, prompting a sigh and a laugh from Mr. Kerry Leider of the School District, who had waited it out in the chance that something did come up. After that, I was the only person left in the audience chamber, doodling deliriously as the Council plowed through a heap of unanimously approved ordinances. In the closing comments, there was one final back-and-forth on the handling of the IRV debate between Councilor Fosle and President Krug, with Fosle saying Robert’s Rules of Order had not been followed, Krug saying the Council has a precedent of not following them religiously, and Fosle concluding by saying, “but we don’t cut people off, either.” That did cut off the debate, though, and everyone headed for the exits in exhaustion.

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

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.