Duluth council candidates talk issues: Four vie for two At Large seats

The four candidates jockeying for two At Large seats on the Duluth City Council are united in their concern over the sorry state of Duluth's streets, and they universally endorse Mayor Emily Larson's proposal to raise the local sales tax by a hal...

Duluth City Council At Large candidates (from left): Barb Russ, Zack Filipovich, Janet Kennedy, Rich Updegrove
Duluth City Council At Large candidates (from left): Barb Russ, Zack Filipovich, Janet Kennedy, Rich Updegrove

The four candidates jockeying for two At Large seats on the Duluth City Council are united in their concern over the sorry state of Duluth's streets, and they universally endorse Mayor Emily Larson's proposal to raise the local sales tax by a half percent to pay for improvements.

That tax - if approved by local voters and the Minnesota Legislature - would generate an anticipated $7 million per year.

Incumbent Councilor Barb Russ, a 68-year-old retired attorney for St. Louis County, noted that the city would need to increase its property tax by about 40 percent to generate a similar sum of money.

"When you sit down and go over what else we could do, there's no way we could get enough money out of adding to the levy. It just doesn't work," she said.

Zack Filipovich, a 27-year-old accountant and the other At Large incumbent in the race, referred to Duluth's poor streets as "the number one thing I hear about when I'm out door-knocking."


As for the mayor's sales tax proposal, Filipovich said: "I support it 100 percent. I think it's a good move"

Janet Kennedy, a 54-year-old physical therapy assistant, said she likes the fact that a sales tax wouldn't fall only on Duluth's residents.

"We have 35,000 people who come into Duluth each day to work and millions of tourists, and I think the best scenario and best practice is to make sure that everybody pays their part. So the tax itself will spread the burden across to everyone who uses our roads and our infrastructure. It's also nice that it won't burden people when they go and buy groceries or clothes," she said.

Rich Updegrove, a 41-year-old social studies teacher, considers a sales tax increase to pay for streets a more equitable option than a large property tax increase.

"That would hit low-income folks more. As the property taxes go up, if you are renting - even though you aren't responsible for the mortgage and the owner of the building is - it's quite likely that you're going to see your rent increase dramatically as well," he said.


The four candidates are far less united when it comes to the question of whether the City Council should enter the debate about the future of PolyMet, a proposed copper-nickel mining operation located upstream of Duluth in the St. Louis River watershed.

Neither Filipovich nor Russ voted in support of a failed council resolution that called for an evidentiary hearing regarding the project to assess its risks and merits.


Filipovich said he would prefer for the council to focus on issues closer to home and also places his faith in regulators to determine whether the mining operation is appropriate.

"I have great confidence in our taxpayer-funded state agencies to do the work that they are charged to do," he said.

Russ said she told fellow councilors that the review of Polymet had best be left to others.

"I tried to explain to everybody that we can't tell the DNR what to do. They know how to do their jobs. They'll have a hearing when it's time to have hearings," she said.

But Updegrove contends that in dodging the debate over PolyMet, the council failed to perform its duty.

"As a city councilor, it's almost somewhat of an abandonment of our lake and the people. I feel like when we step up and stand up for our lake, we're standing up for our city. We're standing up for each other. It seems clear to me that all city councilors should be champions of the lake, but that is not what happened on the vote," he said.

Kennedy, too, believes the city council should play an active role in guarding the St. Louis River from pollution, especially in light of ongoing cleanup efforts.

"I don't want my grandkids to have to have to spend billions of dollars to cleanup a waterway when we can have that discussion now," she said.


"I believe Duluth needs to be in that discussion," Kennedy said. "We're a stakeholder."

Sick time

All four At Large Council candidates expressed support for the idea of the city requiring employers to provide workers with paid time off to deal with illness and other family crises.

"I'm supportive of it, and I support having something strong," Russ said.

Filipovich expressed confidence in the work of a task force that has been studying the issue for more than a year now.

"I think every business owner who I've talked with has said, 'We want to provide these kinds of benefits to people.' But it's just finding a way to do it that doesn't hinder business too much and that still provides adequate protection for workers. So I believe we can find a good balance," he said.

Kennedy, too, talked about striking a balance.

"Earned sick and safe time is something that I believe is needed, but we also need to make sure we're taking care of some of our small businesses, because Duluth needs to viable economically, and this is an issue that could make a difference in a lot of people's lives," she said.


Updegrove noted that about 45 percent of local workers lack access to paid sick time and expressed public health concerns about people going to work sick and spreading illnesses to co-workers and customers, alike.

"I also think that it's an issue of safety for children. You have parents leaving their children at home because they're sick, and then they're going to work, leaving their child unattended. Or as teachers, we've seen high school students staying home to care for younger siblings," he said.


Russ said the lack of housing, especially for households with annual incomes of $50,000 or less has emerged as a more pressing issue than she initially realized.

"When I first ran, I thought streets were our biggest problem. It is a big problem, but quite frankly, housing is a bigger problem in terms of impacting people's lives," she said. If re-elected, Russ said she will work to help bring at least 400 more units of housing onto the scene in Duluth for each of the next four years.

Filipovich noted that much of the new housing the city has successfully attracted has been in the form of higher-end developments.

"Now we get to do some of the harder things of getting more mid-level and low-income housing. Actually, earlier this year we partnered with the county and did two tax abatements for more mid-level housing projects," he said, adding that more development of that sort will be needed.

Updegrove supports the idea of creating a community trust fund to help develop more affordable housing, but said the city will need help.


"It's going to need to be a collaboration between investors, the city and housing advocates. It's not something the city can do alone. It's not something that contractors and investors can do alone. It's going to have to be a combined effort," he said.

If elected, Kennedy said she's eager to take part in the effort to better meet the city's housing needs and provide a new perspective.

"I really do believe that when we're talking about issues like housing and income disparities, we find the best solutions when we're all working together. We can't continue to do the same thing and expect to get different results. That's why I'm passionate about running and being a city councilor," she said.

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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