Retiree health care, DECC expansion top priorities list

Local officials will ask state lawmakers for a few favors when the legislative session begins in January. Retiree health care and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center expansion top the list.

Local officials will ask state lawmakers for a few favors when the legislative session begins in January. Retiree health care and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center expansion top the list.

Duluth city councilors met to discuss their priorities Monday afternoon. They'll approve a final list Dec. 4.

The council will ask favors from a Legislature perhaps more amenable to their requests, after Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidates gained majorities in the House and Senate and the state coffers show a surplus.

City lobbyist Kevin Walli said he'll try to rewrite a lease with Northwest Airlines.

Since mechanics went on strike, a publicly funded maintenance hangar at the Duluth International Airport sits empty, and the airline has fallen behind on its lease payments. Duluth taxpayers shouldn't be left holding the bag, Councilor Don Ness said.


The city's top priority is a $301 million retiree health care liability.

City officials want to invest money into the state Public Employees Retirement Association. The state investment pool typically produces higher yields, although state lawmakers must OK the arrangement.

In May, lawmakers failed to find money for the DECC expansion in the waning moments of the 2006 session.

Since then, legislators have said the project would be a top priority. And Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the expansion was "95 percent" sure, although he said that months before his narrow re-election win. In the meantime,construction costs for the project have gone up about $5 million.

University of Minnesota Duluth officials have said they need a new hockey arena in order to stay competitive in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The expansion project calls for a 6,630-seat arena and a 700-car parking ramp.

The project would have to come in the form of an emergency borrowing bill, as lawmakers don't normally draw up a major project list until 2008. The state money would be matched by an increase in the city food and beverage tax, which Duluth voters OK'd but legislators would also need to approve.

Rep. Mike Jaros, DFL-Duluth, said the DECC remains a high priority. But the deal needs Pawlenty's help, he said.

Former Senate majority leader Dean Johnson of Willmar liked the project, but he was defeated last week. Walli's job this session will be to get the project on the desk of Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, the new majority leader. Pogemiller is "very familiar with our projects," Walli told councilors Monday afternoon.


Jaros said the state investment arrangement probably would have to include all Minnesota communities. Many entities in Minnesota are facing future liabilities, due to a change in accounting rules meant to accurately reflect union benefits.

But lawmakers won't be a big part of the retiree health care solution.

Most of the future savings will come from increased use of generic prescription drugs and renegotiated union contracts.

In addition to the DECC expansion and the retiree liability, Mayor Herb Bergson wants to use Fond-du-Luth casino trust money for street projects.

The mayor also would like help with stormwater improvements.

Duluth's old runoff collection system is often overwhelmed, city public works officials have said, sometimes blowing off manhole covers. The state can help provide matching money for improvements such as stormwater holding tanks, Jaros said.

Councilors did not discuss aid for the Lake Superior Zoo. The facility recently lost national accreditation, and needs significant upgrades. Though zoo funding could be sought from the Legislature, zoo officials plan to rely on a small amount of state money to fix up the Polar Shores filtration system, home to polar bears

The council will meet in December with Duluth's legislative delegation, which includes Sens. Tom Bakk and Yvonne Prettner-Solon, and Reps. Jaros, Tom Huntley and Mary Murphy.


The city has budgeted $54,000 for lobbying services in 2007.

JASON MOHR covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached at (218) 723-5312 or by e-mail at .

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