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Duluth City Council approves bond funding, contract

The Duluth City Council acted on a diverse assortment of issues Monday night, including a variance appeal to make a house on Park Point more handicapped accessible, a couple of large bonding requests and a proposed new contract for nearly 500 cit...

The Duluth City Council acted on a diverse assortment of issues Monday night, including a variance appeal to make a house on Park Point more handicapped accessible, a couple of large bonding requests and a proposed new contract for nearly 500 city workers.

Handicap hardship

Pat Brownell-Sterner, who aims to move into a Park Point home with her disabled brother, asked city councilors to overturn a planning commission decision. Commissioners earlier denied her a variance for a reduced side-yard setback, but she called on councilors to overturn that decision in light of her brother's mobility issues.

Brownell-Sterner said the galley-style design of the house's current kitchen rendered it virtually unusable for a person using a walker or wheelchair. She sought to remodel the kitchen and expand it, but the project would have brought the footprint of the house closer to the property line than city code allows.

Brownell-Sterner said she and her brother inherited the house at 3427 S. Lake Ave. from their aunt and hoped to live out the remainder of their days in it. The home was built in 1908.

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Explaining the need to redo the kitchen, Brownell-Sterner said: "We want the house to be able to accommodate us as we age."

Keith Hamre, Duluth's director of planning and construction services, the accessibility issues Brownell-Sterner brought forward Monday had not been presented to the planning commission.

Bob Lent, another Duluth resident who had encountered difficulties trying to make modifications to his own home that would make it easier for him and his wife to live out their later years there, said the city makes the process of applying for a variance unnecessarily complicated, intimidating and difficult. He asked the city to consider how it handles future requests, noting: "This city is full of older houses that need updating."

Evidently taking those words to heart, 3rd District City Councilor Em Westerlund, who represents Park Point, said: "I think that it is time for us to have a conversation about how to make sure that this process is not unnecessarily discriminatory against people who are planning for their future and planning for retirement and the end of life."

The council voted unanimously in favor of overturning the planning commission decision and granting the requested variance.

Bonding

Councilors also unanimously voted to authorize the city to issue and sell bonds with a combined value of more than $40 million Monday night.

That may sound like a lot of debt, but the city's administration contends it's a good investment.

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Capitalizing on low interest rates, the city aims to issue $33.4 million in tax-exempt general obligation bonds to refinance 2008 improvements to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center that included the construction of Amsoil Arena.

The city proposes to repurchase outstanding bonds and issue new, lower-interest bonds in their place - a move that's anticipated to save Duluth more than $4 million.

City councilors also gave the go-ahead for Duluth to issue $7.8 million in taxable general obligation bonds in order to help Cirrus Aircraft put up a new facility. Cirrus has pledged to pay off the bonds in full as part of a 15-year loan agreement.

The company also agreed to boost the number of full-time jobs it provides in Duluth by at least 150, increasing the size of its local workforce by more than 20 percent. Furthermore, Cirrus promises to keep all production of its piston engine and its new jet aircraft based in Duluth for at least the next 20 years. The airplane-maker is shooting to bring its first jet aircraft to market yet this year.

AFSCME Contract

In other business, the council unanimously voted in support of a three-year contract with its largest union - the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 66. The tentative agreement already had been approved for ratification by the workers the union represents.

The new contract will provide workers with an annual 3 percent increase in pay both in 2016 and 2017, followed by an additional 2½ percent bump in base pay in 2018.

Related Topics: PARK POINT
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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