Election 2007: Bell, Ness offer views on the state of Duluth's streets
The News Tribune sat down with Duluth mayoral candidates Charlie Bell and Don Ness recently in separate interviews and asked them the same questions. In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election, we will publish question-and-answer stories givi...
The News Tribune sat down with Duluth mayoral candidates Charlie Bell and Don Ness recently in separate interviews and asked them the same questions. In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election, we will publish question-and-answer stories giving each candidate's responses.
Today's topic is the city's aging streets.
Q: How would you fix the city's aging streets over a reasonable period, and how would you pay for it?
A: I would stop the action of the City Council going into the CIT [Community Investment Trust Fund]. We've got to stop using that for funding all our programs that our city budget is not in shape to do. So, with that, we'll have more money because the money will be going in there on a yearly basis.
We get a minimal rate of interest on that CIT fund that's regulated. We need to look at what we can change to get different investments in that huge fund to produce more like an 8, 9 or 10 percent interest rate. We need to change that to develop more income. Then we'll have more money to put into our infrastructure and our streets because, if you look at economic development, that's what you need to get the attention of businesses to expand and come in. You need to have a good infrastructure. ... I've seen the deterioration of our streets and, interestingly enough, when you put a new street in a neighborhood, people invest into their homes. Not only are you affecting the economy by putting new streets in, you have that ancillary benefit of homeowners and apartment owners reinvesting into their facilities and hiring more people to do that.
A: I have a plan to at least double our commitment to the street improvement program by 2011. We do that in two ways: One is that we have the Community Investment Trust Fund and we need to protect the integrity of that fund. Now there's great opportunity that we can invest those monies with the state Board of Investment and we can get a greater rate of return, and we need to make sure that we're taking that greater rate of return and investing it into our street improvement program.
The second opportunity that we have is in 2009, when the first of the 15-year bonds that were issued for the street improvement program back in 1994 will be expiring. We had been using interest generated from the Community Investment Trust Fund and applying those dollars to the retirement of those bonds issued in 1994. Now we're going to pay off those bonds in 2009 and we'll have this revenue available that no longer needs to be used to pay off bonds. ... My plan is to reinvest every single penny of those dollars that come available and reinvest them back into the street improvement program.
So, I think that the combination of those two things will allow us to double our investment in the street improvement program. The second part of this and, again, I think it points to some of the shortcomings of how government approaches long-term planning, we're spending millions of dollars reconstructing city streets through the street improvement program. And then we are simply allowing those streets to go through their cycle and we're not doing the maintenance work necessary to protect that asset that we've created. It's the same sort of short-term thinking that's put us in this position in the first place. So what we need to do is invest in a mill and overlay system in which we are continually removing the blacktop and laying a new sheet of blacktop. That's important not only for aesthetic purposes, not only for the smooth ride that you get out of it, but it doubles the life of the road when you commit to an overlay program on those city streets. And yes, it takes revenue that you can't then use for street reconstruction, but if you're able to double the lifetime of a city street and push off the total reconstruction of that street from 25 years to 50 years, then that's an investment that makes sense.
So the combination of being able to at least double the street improvement program where we're reconstructing the streets from the roadbed up, [and] couple that with more aggressive investment in a mill and overlay program, I think we can make real progress.
Q: How would you avoid the trap of diverting money from the street improvement fund for other projects?
A: I think it's important to recognize that our situation is going to change in 2010 when our agreement with the casino expires, and we'll then be in a position where we're going to renegotiate with the tribe. We cannot count on with any certainty that revenue being there into the future. It's my hope that ... the tribe will continue their commitment in being a strong partner with the city of Duluth on that, but there are no guarantees. And it will be important that the mayor is able to work with federal leadership in order to ensure that we have that real positive relationship. ... [The fund from which street improvement money is drawn] is the Community Investment Trust Fund. It's not called the roads fund. It's called the Community Investment Trust Fund. And the first priority needs to be on roads and improving that infrastructure, but when we have opportunities like the Heritage Center, like the Kroc Center, in which we can use a more-
limited amount of public funds [to] leverage full, more-private investments in providing public amenities, then those are opportunities that we need to be open to. I wouldn't be comfortable closing the door and saying the city cannot be a partner if those opportunities come forward. But it needs to be a very high standard. It needs to be a project we can't afford to let slip away.
A: By adhering to the budget and looking to run the city more efficiently, we could save money more efficiently. The overtime money that's been used, we can stop doing that. I'll tell you one thing is that solving the ... health-care [liability] is essential because we put $10 [million] to $12 million a year into it. Once we have that funded, or at least funding is going into it, then there's a lot of money that's going to be available to deal with our annual budget. So we will not let things happen, like the zoo, for example. We will adhere to a yearly budget and [make] investment into our capital improvements and programs for our citizens.
Q: How much, if any, of street improvement costs should be assessed to homeowners along the streets?
A: Well, we'll look at that, but we have to determine... There are neighborhoods that can afford it [better] than other neighborhoods. And I think we have to be fair and equitable according to what people can afford to do.
A: I think that's the other strategy to allow us to stretch those limited dollars available to the street improvement program, if we can ask for slightly higher assessments from the homeowners surrounding [a street being improved]. And that's a question that will need to be brought to the community and to policymakers and say, "Here are the funds that are available, and here are a few strategies in terms of the amount we're asking the affected homeowners to contribute, and here is the resulting number of miles of reconstruction that are possible."
It's in my belief in door-knocking and going door to door and hearing how folks are feeling about our street improvement, the condition of the streets, is they would like to see the city become more aggressive in reconstruction and maintenance of our city streets. In order to do that, I believe that those folks would be willing to take on slightly higher assessments with the understanding that's going to put us on track to reconstruct and improve a larger number of streets on a year-to-year basis and get ourselves to the point where we can be confident that we will replace every single street in the city of Duluth ... before we need to go back and reconstruct those streets. And right now we're way behind schedule and we need to be more aggressive if we're ever going to catch up.
Q: The city changed the snowplow policy last year and as a result it takes longer after a snowfall to plow secondary streets. What do you think of this change?
A: There's no question that the city needed to implement the system, a more creative system in how we plow city streets, because of the staffing shortages that we had in public works and the need to reduce the number of snowplow drivers that we kept on throughout the calendar year. So the result was, especially when we had the major storm, we were putting less-experienced people onto the street in the snowplows and the service wasn't to the quality that people had learned to expect from the city of Duluth in terms of snow removal.
And so it's a question of the amount of resources that we put in year-round to address those storms that [happen] a handful of times throughout the year. The city can certainly expend tremendous resources to make sure that we have a large number of qualified drivers available in order to meet the greatest need in those snowstorms. Or we can be more creative, make sure that we have our best but have a smaller number of snowplow drivers, have a more flexible system that has great cost savings. On the flip side, folks are going to need to be a little bit more patient and they may not get as quick a service as they've had in the past. And that's just the reality of today's governmental world, that we simply don't have the resources that we had 20 years ago.
A: I think it takes longer to plow the streets because the staff in public works is half of what it used to be. That's the change that I've seen. I'd like to relook at everything the city's doing, quite frankly, and see how to become more efficient and provide the services.