Virgil Swing: Report card time for recent city council actions
As we await word on Mayor Don Ness's efforts to find support for his sewer surcharge plan and action on the plans he outlined Monday for dealing with Duluth's $5 million budget deficit, this is a good time to look at recent actions in other city ...
As we await word on Mayor Don Ness's efforts to find support for his sewer surcharge plan and action on the plans he outlined Monday for dealing with Duluth's $5 million budget deficit, this is a good time to look at recent actions in other city issues discussed here earlier.
The Duluth Economic Development Authority (city councilors wearing their business development hats) voted last week to expand the Skywalk System, without raiding the money needed to fix city streets.
In a recent column, I opined that improving streets is more important than extending the skywalk, even though the
latter is too important to let it sit as it is for a long time. DEDA decided to extend the skywalk with money from various tax increment finance districts and the city's Storefront Loan program.
That seems like a good compromise, especially since some of the skywalk work was promised by the city to developers who have put a lot of money into downtown projects.
Not assured yet -- but at least being raised by city officials -- is a cap on the amount of city construction money committed to public art projects. My criticism of the current system was triggered by word that about $400,000 would have to be spent on such art as part of the nearly $40 million DECC expansion.
Back when the city voted to have 1 percent of city construction projects go for public art, it's likely no one fully considered what it would mean for mega-projects like the DECC. City councilors Garry Krause, Greg Gilbert and Todd Fedora are to be commended for pushing a cap on how much public arts money will go to such projects. Dennis Lamkin, president of the Duluth Public Arts Commission, is also to be commended for agreeing that a rollback is needed.
This needed action is far from certain, however. Krause, Gilbert and Fedora disagree on how low the cap should be set. Councilors gave a first reading Monday to the competing plans. Even if they later agree on one, they'll have to get two other council votes.
Nevertheless, it's a step in the right direction.
Krause also sought council action on yet another simmering local controversy: the School District's hugely expensive Red Plan to build some new schools and scrap some others. He conceded his resolution to ask for a vote on the plan would be merely symbolic, since the School Board would not be bound by it.
As I said in an earlier column, that $293 million project deserves a public vote. It is by far the biggest school project in Duluth history and will impose a substantial burden on local taxpayers for a long time to come. It is also unnecessarily expensive.
Lots of other voices -- heard through petitions and unsuccessful legislative efforts -- have also asked for a vote. But it looks like a majority on the board are determined to tough this out even though that raises the specter of unhappy taxpayers rejecting a renewal of the current special operating levy this fall.
Even though it would have been symbolic and apparently come too late in the game to have any effect (the district has already bonded for $171 million of the $293 million plan), it is too bad councilors knocked Krause's resolution off the council agenda. Sometimes symbols are important.
Finally, councilors should not now second-guess Mayor Ness for making the DECC expansion the top city priority in the state's bonding bill instead of money for dealing with Duluth's sewer overflow problem.
As I said in a column at the time, the sewer problem is indeed more important than a larger and nicer hockey arena (and other improvements in the DECC project), but the political realities of 2008 Minnesota Legislature made the DECC expansion possible this year while the sewer cash was not.
I'll have more to say in future columns about city efforts to deal with its budget deficit and sewer overflow problems. There's no need to insist on or expect all councilors will fall into line with the mayor's plans for solving them, but revisiting city priorities for a past legislative session at which the city did well is merely a distraction.
E-mail Virgil Swing at email@example.com .