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City Council Work Session - June 14, 2011

June 17, 2011 at 10:52 am
By Jane McWilliams
City Council Work Session

Tuesday, June 14, 2010, 6:00 p.m.

Jane McWilliams, LWV Observer

Councilor Kris Vohs was absent.

Fees for Plastic and Paper Shopping Bags: Northfield resident Marcea Frazier, who is working on a college degree in Sustainable Community Development, met with the council to request that they make her “bag free proposal” a citywide ordinance. Noting that there are a little over 8 years left in the Rice County landfill, Ms Frazier proposes a fee to encourage the use of reusable shopping bags in order to reduce the amount of solid waste going into the landfill. County Commissioner Galen Malecha, who is serving as her mentor, accompanied her.

Ms. Frazier provided a comprehensive analysis supporting her request. She is recommending a fee of 20 to 25 cents per bag, which according to her research, is needed to change consumer habits. This fee would be divided between the business, the city, the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, the city Parks and Recreation Department, and the Economic Quality Commission.

Mayor Mary Rossing said the council would need to determine where it wants to go with this idea. She saw it in the context of an overall reduction of solid waste, one of the council’s goals. Although Councilor Erica Zweifel agreed that the council should look at the wider issues, she doesn’t want this proposal to get lost.

Delegation of this proposal to the Environmental Quality Commission will be on the consent agenda at the next meeting.

Economic Development Authority – Action Steps: Mayor Rossing reviewed the history of the issues surrounding the EDA. She laid before the council a half dozen options to consider ranging from giving the EDA direction and appointing remaining members and let them get their work done to eliminating the present authority and establishing a new economic development process, including the council’s taking on the role.

She and Councilor Rhonda Pownell envision retaining the present structure. The mayor was concerned about the workload if the council takes over directing economic development and whether the council had the business skills. Councilor Betsey Buckheit said if the mayor shares some of the responsibility for bringing things to meetings, the council has the talents to do this.

Councilor Pownell said the council is cutting the EDA short by not giving it a chance to succeed and said that at their meeting with the EDA, the groups didn’t work through the issues they had agreed to. Councilor Zweifel replied that this is not a disciplinary action, but a warranted review. She cited her concern that the 2011 EDA budget is twice the levy limit. City Administrator said that regardless of who is to blame, things are not working now. The advantage in the council taking it on is that there can be focus on economic development, either temporarily or long term.

Councilor Patrick Ganey said he supported passing a resolution having the council serve as the EDA. Councilor Buchheit added this creates efficiency. Councilor Zweifel said she supported the council serving temporarily as EDA, clarifying what is the most strategic economic development and then deciding whether to appoint a separate EDA or use other methods. Councilor Suzie Nakasian called for a wider view – saying that they need to give more than one group responsibility for economic development, including the private sector. Mayor Rossing said this is a severe step, that they have been “mindful, but not graceful.”

City Administrator Tim Madigan will alert City Attorney Chris Hood that the council will take on the EDA role, at least for the rest of the year.

Comment: Last year several councilors noted there were problems with the EDA operations and functions, and that it needed clearer direction from the council. The latter complaint was even more evident after January when new members (Councilors Ganey and Nakasian) agreed with and added to the concerns of two incumbents (Councilors Buckheit and Zweifel).

After Tom Cough’s interviews with council and EDA, in April he and City Administrator Tim Madigan recommended a series of steps for the council. Rather than take the radical approach evolving in tonight’s discussion, which will further delay effective attention to economic development during the transition, in this observer’s view, council would have been wise to adopt those recommendations on April 5: (http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/p/Packet196.pdf #20)

The June 7 meeting was not the intended fruitful exchange of the EDA’s work plan and budget and the council’s priorities, but ended inconclusively. Messrs. Clough and Madigan’s recommendation was that the council reconcile their priorities with the EDA work plan, giving that group direction and then fill the EDA vacancies, require EDA participation in a training session and dedicate the late summer to setting a 4 year plan, This would be followed by a December reevaluation of the work plan. At that time, the council would have a more systematic evaluation of the EDA’s performance.

By my count, there have already been ten EDA discussions since November 2010 to get to this decision. Does this mean that formal municipal economic development is on hold? In addition to the necessity for whatever legal transitions are necessary for the council to take on the EDA role, there will be further economic development process discussions. In order to perform effectively as an EDA, the council will need to return to a consideration of direction and priorities, and decide among all the implementation options for how these will be moved forward.

Mill and Overlay Assessment Policies: In response to Jefferson Road residents’ concerns at the June 7 meeting, the council asked staff to prepare options for lowering the assessment rate for reclamation projects. Because the lots are wider that is usual in the Jefferson Road project, individual assessments are large. As a result, according to Public Works Director Katy Gehler, staff recommends reducing the assessments to 50-75% of the benefit appraisal (the amount based on the assessors’ estimate of the benefit to the property). A proposal will come to the council’s next business meeting.

Post Office Review: Former Mayor Keith Covey, representing the citizen organization Save Our Post Office, asked the council to direct staff to obtain legal assistance to understand the procedures the city or others need to go through to exercise the options available to keeping the post office service downtown. He reviewed some of the options discussed at the council’s June 7 meeting. Mayor Rossing asked SOPO to look at options with a goal of keeping the building for the benefit of the entire community and come back to the council with a proposal including what assistance is needed.

Joint Meeting with Library Board: Board Chair Char Carlson and others reported on the current issues and projects of the library. Noting that all libraries are in transition and becoming information centers, the board is undertaking a formal needs assessment in order to meet the future and be ready for expansion. They will ask for funding for this in the 2012 budget.

Considerations are in the works for off-site locations for services to better serve the public and alleviate space constraints. A top priority is getting the book mobile, Booker, back “on the road.” Friends of the Library has formed a foundation for raising resources and Board member Margit Johnson reminded the board there is support for the library. However, potential donors in the community are unwilling to make significant donations toward expansion until the city decides on a time line. “There is a deep well of resources for library expansion, but it comes after the city provides the leadership," according to Ms Johnson.

This evening, the council gave itself more time to tackle some difficult issues. By so doing, they finished their business at 9:55, just in time to avoid the need to formally extend the agreed upon adjournment hour of 10:00 p.m.!

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