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Duluth council adopts budget; motions to amend mayor’s proposal fail

The Duluth City Council signed off on Mayor Emily Larson's budget proposal by an 8-1 vote Monday evening, with 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle dissenting.

Two separate motions to amend the budget failed for lack of support.

Councilors Joel Sipress and Em Westerlund proposed to redirect $175,000 the mayor had earmarked for street improvements to preserve two record-keeping positions in the police department and one parks maintenance position, but their amendment failed by a 6-3 vote, with 1st District Councilor Gary Anderson joining them in the minority.

Meanwhile, a more modest amendment offered by At Large Councilor Zack Filipovich to shift $50,000 out of the street fund to maintain a police records position also failed by a 6-3 margin, with Anderson and Sipress joining Filipovich in support of it.

At Large Councilor Noah Hobbs noted that local voters recently approved a referendum in support of increasing the local sales tax by a one-half of a percent in order to fund street improvements with the expectation that funding would be bolstered by an additional $1 million Mayor Larson had pledged to put toward roadwork, too.

"I think by taking that money and saying, 'Oh, we have this money hopefully coming from the state Legislature that will allow us to fund this through the sales tax,' it feels like we'd be eroding the public's trust," Hobbs said.

At Large Councilor Elissa Hansen agreed, noting that Larson had sold voters on a plan that ultimately would boost total spending on street improvements from about $2 million to $10 million.

David Montgomery, Duluth's chief administrative officer, acknowledged councilors' prerogative to adjust the city's budget for 2018 but urged them to stay the course charted by the mayor's administration. Larson's budget included about $2 million in spending cuts in other areas.

"I understand your concerns over different departments facing issues. Every department took reductions this year — not just the police and not just parks but every department. So there are holes in everybody's budget," he said.

"The concern we have with this ... is a little bit about optics and it's a little bit about choices. We did just go through a referendum process. We held over 20 different public comment meetings, and the first concern at every single meeting was: Will these be committed dollars? Will they be dedicated dollars? Can these dollars be touched for anything else? And we assured them over and over again that that was in fact the case," Montgomery said.

He noted that even if the Minnesota Legislature signs off on the city's request for a sales tax increase, those dollars won't begin to flow until 2019. Montgomery said administration viewed the additional $1 million it is dedicating for street improvements in 2018 as "a bridge."

A majority of councilors decided to support the mayor's budget without modification. As a result, the owner of an average-priced $177,000 home in Duluth can expect to pay $30 more in the city's share of property taxes next year. The tax on such a home will increase from $661 to $691 in 2018 under the budget approved by the council Monday night.