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Duluth city councilor to create task force to tackle streets

The Duluth City Council continues to wrestle with the task of how it will pay for future street improvements without relying on a cut of revenues from the Fond-du-Luth Casino any more.

Ready for repairs
Chris LaFave (left) and Shaun Frye, with JMF Construction, use an "umbrella" to gather and lift debris from a sanitary sewer on 27th Avenue West at Fifth Street on Tuesday, May 28, 2013. They were doing sewer manhole work in preparation for milling and re-blacktopping the avenue this summer. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

The Duluth City Council continues to wrestle with the task of how it will pay for future street improvements without relying on a cut of revenues from the Fond-du-Luth Casino any more.

On Tuesday, Duluth City Council President Patrick Boyle announced his intention to put together a working group of councilors and city staff that will develop a set of recommendations to be presented within the next 60 days or so.

"I think the time has come to get a little more serious about our streets," Boyle said, now that the city knows what it will receive under a newly adopted state budget.

David Montgomery, the city's chief administrative officer, agreed that the time was right to develop a plan.

"We thought it would be best to wait until after the legislative session to know what tools we'd have to work with," he said.

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Montgomery estimates the city can expect to receive an additional $1.5 million to $1.6 million in Local Government Aid in 2014. He also anticipates some new rules exempting the city from having to pay some sales taxes will mean an additional $200,000 to $300,000 in savings for the general fund.

The city must develop a budget and the council is required to set its maximum levy by mid-September.

City Councilor Jim Stauber expressed frustration that the city has thus far done so little to develop a plan for how to pay for street improvements.

"In February of 2012, we made a commitment to get this done, and here it is May of 2013 and we still have done nothing."

Stauber proposed a $9 million package to fund street improvements using the increased LGA payments from the state, an additional $2.7 million taken from the city's general fund, and up to $1 million in payments the city receives in lieu of taxes from the municipal gas utility.

But Stauber acknowledged these funding sources alone would be inadequate to address the city's need for street improvements.

"It's going to be painful, but I would be OK increasing the levy as long as proportionately, the general fund was reduced," he said.

"If we make some hard cuts at city hall, then I, as a taxpayer as well as a city councilor, am willing to increase taxes to also supplement our street improvement program. I'm also willing to increase the assessments," Stauber said.

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While Duluth property owners typically pay just 25 percent of the cost of street improvements, Stauber said many other communities charge anywhere from 50 to 100 percent. He proposed increasing the assessments by 5 percent per year until 2018, when they would top out at 50 percent.

But on Tuesday, Stauber agreed to withdraw his proposal to give the working group Boyle aims to form time to offer an alternative.

"We've had several meetings about streets now, and I feel like we floundered a bit," Councilor Linda Krug said. "But I like the idea of a task force doing some intense work and bringing back some recommendations to us."

Montgomery acknowledged the city faces a daunting task.

"We have far more that needs to be done than we can do," he said. "We have tremendous needs all over the city that we don't have the means to meet."

Related Topics: TRANSPORTATION
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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