Ness, Fedora spar at forum
A discussion of the city's budget crisis and how to solve it at a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce forum Tuesday featured a preview of how Duluth Mayor Don Ness plans to deal with the problem, along with some terse exchanges between Ness and City ...
A discussion of the city's budget crisis and how to solve it at a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce forum Tuesday featured a preview of how Duluth Mayor Don Ness plans to deal with the problem, along with some terse exchanges between Ness and City Councilor Todd Fedora.
Ness said he'll present solutions for how the city will address the $5 million budget deficit he "inherited" to the council Monday night, saying they will be "painful for me personally and painful for people in the community."
His plan, Ness said, will include ways to increase revenue, such as having the Zoological Society take over management of the Lake Superior Zoo by the end of the year, and taking a bigger cut in parking tickets by moving to an administrative fine process, which would add $500,000 to $600,000 a year to the city budget.
When it came time for Fedora to speak, he immediately rebuked the mayor.
"Nobody inherited a budget. That budget was approved," Fedora said. "We've been pissing away money in the city for years, and the chickens have come home to roost."
Fedora reiterated that he wouldn't approve any tax increase until he's certain the city is spending its money appropriately.
Later, Ness didn't respond directly to Fedora's comments but said his administration is dealing with problems that have been ignored for 20 to 30 years; he implied that statements like Fedora's aren't helping.
"It is important to me that we have a strong working partnership with the council," Ness said. "If we're going to move anything forward, we're going to need those nine councilors to be in our corner working with us.
"There are times, because the issues are so large, there's a lot of opportunity to make other people look bad and to place blame and to raise the level of the rhetoric," he said, "but at the end of the day that only serves to distract from coming up with solutions. ... If you are a councilor, and you're going to put yourself out there and say that you're willing to make the big decisions, you don't want to feel like you're going to get cut out at the knees by another councilor or the administration."
Last week Fedora was one of four councilors to vote against Ness' proposed $60 million to $80 million solution to eliminating sanitary sewer overflows, which would have created a $9.70 clean water surcharge to pay for water storage tanks and to help people fix their own sewer lines.
Fedora said he wants U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar to make funding for the overflow fixes a federal earmark, while At Large Councilor Jim Stauber, who also spoke at the Forum, complained that the city should have made sewer funding its top priority at the state Legislature instead of funding for the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center expansion.
But Ness said funding from the state and federal levels wouldn't happen early enough to satisfy the Environmental Protection Agency, which is demanding the overflow elimination, and argued the city needs to find a way to pay for the problem first before seeking other government funding sources.
"We need to show our leadership, [to] say that the citizens are committed to solving this and we need your help," Ness said. "The EPA is not going to wait. If we don't get a passed plan from the city, they will impose the plan on us."
Stauber, who also voted against Ness' sewer plan last week, said he wanted to see more cuts from the city before he would approve any new spending. Stauber wants significant cuts to the city's overtime budget and Fire Department.
"We haven't seen a dime in expenses being cut to pay for this," he said.
Ness hinted that cuts are on the way, saying there will be elimination of programs, positions and services the city has provided in the past, but he wouldn't say what.