Local View: Stop complaining about Duluth's streets, support plan to fix them
I've been happily retired for nearly a year now, no longer part of the day-to-day activities of St. Louis County, where I worked for 39 years, or the city of Duluth, where I was honored to serve as a both a district and at-large city councilor.
So as I sit here in my rocking chair (I'm kidding; it turns out retired people don't actually do that.), I now have the luxury to pick and choose what causes I want to support.
The most exciting of these is Mayor Emily Larson's proposed solution to fix Duluth's crumbling streets. If there is a "Vote Yes for Streets Committee," I want to join it. If phone calls will help, I'll make those calls. I'll knock on doors and pound lawn signs all over town to support it. I will to do anything to help pass the Nov. 7 referendum designed to create a dedicated, protected funding source to fix Duluth's embarrassing streets.
The referendum proposing a half-percent sales tax is a great solution and will raise an estimated $7 million annually just for streets.
Everyone agrees Duluth's streets are bad. But the question always has been how to pay for the fix. For decades, various approaches have been discussed, even tried, but, always with little success. The best one was a 25-year street improvement program started in the early 1990s with a solid funding mechanism. Unfortunately, those funds were reallocated — some like to say "raided" — after a only a few years to address needs that others felt were more pressing. So, streets, once again, were pushed aside.
City officials say it will take $446 million just to meet current needs. Deteriorating roadways is a problem facing all governments. St. Louis County adopted its own "transportation sales tax" a few years ago and just last year was able to commit $13.8 million to its massive road system from the sales tax increase alone.
Thanks to this affordable, tested funding structure, the time to restart Duluth's street improvement plan is now, with an approach that is guaranteed never to be raided. Yes, that would be guaranteed by state law.
But first, Duluth voters must tell the Legislature we want to move forward with this plan.
The city could have chosen to fund streets by increasing everyone's property taxes, but then only those who live here would pay the bill. Instead, the proposed half-percent increase on the city's existing sales tax would also be paid by the 6.7 million tourists who annually visit Duluth, and the 35,000 folks who commute into the city each day for their jobs, education, medical services, or other benefits offered by our critical regional center.
We Duluthians will also pay that half-percent tax. Here's what that means: If you make a $4 purchase in a local drive-through, it will cost you an extra two cents. Nothing else will change. Groceries and clothing, big parts of any family budget, will remain tax-free as they are now.
I know there are people reading this who are thinking, "I don't care if it's just two cents, find the money in the existing budget." Actually, Mayor Larson just proposed $2 million in difficult cuts to next year's city budget. But an additional $7 million in further cuts to pay for streets just isn't there — unless we want the city to quit putting out fires, plowing streets, and keeping us safe.
Let's quit talking about how bad Duluth's streets are. Let's finally do something about them — permanently. Please vote yes for streets on Nov. 7.
Gary Eckenberg of Duluth is retired after serving as St. Louis County's deputy administrator. He also served as a member of the Duluth City Council, both At Large and as representative of District 4.
To learn more
A series of public meetings to explain, lobby for, and answer questions about the proposed half-percent sales tax for street repairs in Duluth continues Monday. A public advisory vote on the tax will be on the ballot Nov. 7. Here are the remaining public meetings:
- Monday — A city-hosted meeting is from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Lakeside-Lester Park Community Center, 106 N. 54th Ave. E.
- Wednesday — At the Canal Park Business Association meeting at 8:30 a.m. at Grandma's in Canal Park
- Oct. 24 — At the Irving Community Club meeting at 6 p.m.; the club is at 5830 Grand Ave.
- Oct. 25 — At the West Duluth Business Club Meeting at 11:30 a.m. at Mr. D's, 5622 Grand Ave.
- Oct. 26 — A city-hosted meeting is from 5:30-7 p.m. in the Duluth Heights Community Recreation Center, 33 W. Mulberry St.
- Nov. 2 — At the meeting of Rotary Club 25 at noon at the Holiday Inn downtown