My truck bottomed out on a pothole—it’s costing me $1,000 to get it fixed! And what’s the City doing? Putting in new trails! Why don’t they fix the damn streets!? Don’t they understand priorities? Get a business owner in there running things—they’ll show you people how to budget!
Such sentiments are heard in Duluth every day. As a former city councilor, I heard them in emails, phone calls, and grocery store encounters for most of the eight years I served. Some people really wanted an answer; others were convinced they already knew, and just wanted to voice their dissatisfaction.
Of course, we talked about funding sources during council meetings, but not everyone attends those (or watches them on PACT-TV or streamed on the city’s website, or checks out the DVD recordings, which are available at the downtown library going back to 2014).
And even those who do watch city council meetings often find it difficult to follow the complexities of city finance, when the councilors are all taking turns addressing different aspects of a project.
That’s why I agreed to write this column: The more citizens understand how local government works, the more they can participate in developing creative solutions.
Currently, there are some interesting revenue options on the table. On September 25, the council agreed to raise the preliminary levy by $615,000—a little over three points—in addition to Mayor Emily Larson’s proposed increase.
The preliminary levy is the tentative amount that our taxes are going to be the following year. State law requires cities to set a preliminary levy limit by the end of September and then vote on the final levy by December 31. The final levy cannot be higher than the preliminary levy, so the council tends to set the preliminary levy high, because if they don’t, they can’t raise it by even one dollar.
Larson’s proposed 2018 budget would raise the levy by eight percent and allocate $1 million towards street repair. That money would come from each city department taking a funding cut, including police and fire, which is a major source of public concern.
Councilors Noah Hobbs and Elissa Hansen amended the levy resolution to add $175,000 to mitigate cuts to police and fire. [This sentence originally erroneously identified Howie Hanson, not Elissa Hansen, as the co-author of of this amendment. We apologize for the error.]
Councilors Zack Filipovich and Joel Sipress amended it to add $440,000 to continue reducing the much-maligned streetlight fee, which, by 2020, will eliminate the ComfortSystems fee we get on our bill—
Wait a minute! Isn’t ComfortSystems a separate entity? Yes, and the streetlight fee used to pay the city’s electricians. That money now comes out of the General Fund.
[Disclosure: I’m currently Joel Sipress’ campaign manager, and my term on the council overlapped with everyone mentioned here except Noah Hobbs.]
Between now and December, the council will hold hearings with each city department. Is it necessary to raise the levy by $175,000 to avoid cuts to fire and police? Is it necessary to add $1 million to the street fund? What’s going to happen if we have as much snow this winter as we had rain this summer? Will street plowing be cut back? And how can we make cuts to the Planning Department? Land use and development are critical to our tax base.
On November 7, our ballots in Duluth will include a referendum on paying for street and sidewalk repairs by creating a new revenue source: A ½-cent—one half of one penny—increase in the sales tax. If voters approve the measure, it will be go to the state legislature. If the legislature approves it in 2018, by 2019, Duluth will have a new way to collect money to fix the streets. By state law, this money cannot be spent on hiking trails, or bike lanes, or anything else other than streets and public sidewalks.
Government is not a business. It provides services essential to our daily lives and, as such, it shouldn’t be profit-driven—but it can still be fiscally responsible.
Sharla Gardner is a lifelong Duluthian, who retired from St Louis County Health and Human Services in 2010 and served two terms as City Councilor for the Third District. She lives on the East Hillside with Junior, her activist dog and personal trainer.