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Duluth City Council to tinker with proposed bag-fee ordinance

Amendments likely will be offered Monday, including one that would exempt paper bags

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Single-use paper and plastic bags have stirred concern about litter, prompting Duluth to consider an ordinance requiring retailers to charge customers for them.

While a proposed ordinance that would require local retailers to charge customers a nickel for every paper and plastic bag they dispense remains tabled, members of the Duluth City Council made their intentions clear Thursday night to offer up amendments to the would-be policy come Monday.

The prospective ordinance is intended to encourage people to use reusable cloth bags, instead of single-use bags. However, Council President Noah Hobbs noted that some of the people he's talked to from the local Verso Paper plant have questioned why paper bags are being lumped in with plastic.

"I do intend to bring forward a paper exemption on Monday," he said.

Such an amendment makes some sense to 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress.

"I know for me personally and most of the constituents I hear from, the main concern is plastic, particularly the issue of plastic contamination in the waste stream. There is no argument for paper from the broader issue of ecological sustainability," Siipress said. "So at this point, I'd be favorable toward an amendment to exempt paper."

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At Large Councilor Zack Filipovich, an accountant, said he still hasn't gotten a clear answer as to whether retailers would need to collect sales tax on the bag fees they would be required to charge under the ordinance. He stressed the importance of getting clarity on that issue so local businesses don't run afoul the Minnesota Department of Revenue.

"This is something that I think that it is in everyone's best interests to get answered before we take a vote on this," he said.

Meanwhile, At Large Councilor Arik Forsman said he intends to offer a couple amendments of his own when the council gathers for its regular meeting Monday night. He proposes to push back the date the ordinance would go into effect from Jan. 1, 2020 to July 1, 2020. Forsman also suggested that mounting fines for repeat violations by retailers who fail to collect bag fees be waived if they have not been cited for at least the previous year.

Sipress said the fine amendment seemed reasonable, as did a slower timeline for implementation. But he suggested pushing back the date just a few months.

Forsman said he remains open to other suggestions.

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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