Government News

Things going on in the Government relating to the Southwest Minneapolis area.

City Hall collects gifts for seniors City Hall, 350 S. 5th St., is a collection point for the charitable organization Gifts for Seniors.

The Gifts for Seniors collection is located in City Hall, outside of Room 11, Senior Ombudsman’s Office, and a second collection location is outside the Downtown Skyway Senior Center (in the skyway behind the Target Store, at approximately 9th Street and LaSalle Avenue). Suggested gifts for seniors include postage stamps and gifts certificates to grocery and drug stores. This collection drive ends on Dec. 31.

Check or money order donations may also be sent to: Gift for Seniors, c/o KLBB Radio 331 S. 11th St. Minneapolis, MN 55404-1009

Visit www.giftsforseniors.org for more information. — Robyn Repya

Council passes 2004 city budget By Scott Russell

The Minneapolis City Council approved a 2004 budget, a plan nearly identical to Mayor R.T. Rybak’s proposal, with the only dissent coming from Southwest councilmembers.

The Council passed the $126 million city tax levy 12-1, with Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) voting no. The Council passed the 2004 operating budget 11-2, with Goodman and Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) voting no.

The vote fit into a $1.2 billion spending plan that includes the total budgets for the city and its independent boards. The combined city, parks and library budgets are within the city’s five-year, 8 percent-per-year property tax increase limit. The average homeowner’s property tax hike will be bigger because state law and rising property values have shifted the burden to homeowners from commercial/apartment properties.

Rybak praised the budget, saying it made public safety the top priority and created stable funding for affordable housing projects, community development and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program. He said he would begin planning the 2005 budget immediately and asked for suggestions.

Goodman said she "could not tolerate an 8 percent increase" given the other changes in state law that are adding to homeowner property-tax bills. She had voted for the city’s five-year plan in the past and had "great respect for the players and the process," she said.

She had disagreements with some 2004 spending decisions, however, notably using city reserves to pay pension debt, money she thought should be earmarked for development.

Niziolek disagreed with the budget’s priorities, saying the city needed to invest more in the police department.

Other Southwest-area councilmembers supported the budget. Councilmember Barret Lane (13th Ward) congratulated Rybak for sticking with the five-year plan. "I think this is a reasonable and responsible budget given the circumstances," he said.

Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) said he was not excited about voting for a tax increase, but given the other cuts the city has already made "I can’t see that there is an option to the 8 percent."

The property tax hike won’t result in more services. The city must offset significant state-aid cuts. Also, one-third of the planned five-year tax hike will pay off city pension debt and the "internal services fund" debt that prior councils created by spending more than they had. Another 15 percent of the property tax increase in the five-year plan will pay for the new Downtown library and community library improvements.

In a separate vote, Benson earmarked $200,000 of excess 2003 general fund money for major land use planning efforts: $100,000 for redevelopment planning for South Lyndale Avenue, where it bends west near Crosstown Highway, and $100,000 for Midtown Greenway work.

The Council had nixed a Rybak plan to spend $200,000 for South Lyndale, in part because Rybak had proposed borrowing the money, but some councilmembers opposed borrowing for planning.

The South Lyndale area is slated for an overhaul as part of the Crosstown upgrade, Benson said. The Minnesota Department of Transportation will ask in the next few weeks how the city wants the area designed.

"If we don’t know if it is commercial or residential, we won’t know what to ask for," Benson said.

City to scrutinize tax-exempt properties Facing tight budgets, the city will take a harder look at tax-exempt property to make sure it qualifies for the free pass.

Nonprofits often pay no property taxes, but City Assessor Scott Renne predicts more will have to pony up.

"Something that might have qualified unquestionably 10 years ago, their source of funds and activities, may have changed, so that we may have to update our files and our analysis," he said. "I don’t doubt there could be properties that were exempt that have become taxable."

In December, the City Council heard Renne’s plan to review 500 of the city’s 7,000 tax-exempt properties in 2004.

Some tax-exempt properties such as the University of Minnesota or nonprofit hospitals are not worth reviewing because their use doesn’t change. Other property had what Renne called "soft exemptions" that may change as the land use changes.

Church-owned homes are one example, he said.

"A parsonage is an exempt use," Renne said. "If you want your building engineer to live in a house and that is part of his or her pay, that is not an exempt use."

Another example are church-owned vacant lots, he said. The land is tax-exempt for a specific expansion project, but not if the church bankrolls it long-term, as a land speculator might.

The City Assessor’s staff has shrunk over the years; roughly five years ago, the person who reviewed tax-exempt property full time was cut, Renne said. The job is now split among several staff.

He said because of competing demands, the review could be a thorough tax-exempt analysis or it could be — "yep we got it, yep we will extend it for another three years and throw it in the file.

"I don’t have a belief that we are looking at things in a systematic and comprehensive way like we hope to do."

He did not estimate how much money the review might generate. However, he said, "If we figure that there are ways we can grow the tax base within the framework of state law, we will do it to the best of our ability." — Scott Russell

A more efficient city? Just dial 311 The city of Minneapolis is preparing to launch the 311 phone system — a 911 companion for non-emergency calls about such things as pothole and graffiti complaints.

The system would take some of the burden off the 911 operators and improve city tracking and response to citizen calls, said Karl Kaiser, head of the city’s Business Information System.

Eighteen cities already have the 311 systems, including Chicago, New York City, Houston and Baltimore, he said. Minneapolis should have its own ready in a year to 18 months.

The federal government is helping pay with a $300,000 grant. The Homeland Security and Justice departments are encouraging cities to start the 311 systems, he said.

"Do you recall the sniper incident in the Washington, D.C. area?" Kaiser asked. "When they got to the investigative stage of that terrible incident, they requested input from the citizenry. That clogged down their 911 system."

In Minneapolis, 30 to 35 percent of 911 calls are nonemergency, so diverting them to a 311 system would help in a crisis.

The 311 system’s underpinning is a software package that tracks citizen requests and triggers work orders, Kaiser said. Once it’s running, a citizen could call 311 with a pothole complaint, he said. The operator would validate the address, makes sure it had no duplicate complaints for the same pothole, and get a work order to the Traffic Department.

"We need to have a common approach to all service requests, regardless of whether they come by phone, by Web or by counter service," he said. "The process behind the scenes ought to be the same so we don’t trip over each other."

Over time, the city could develop standards — for example, a three-day turn-around on pothole complaints, he said. Then the city could acknowledge the complaints and give citizens a date by which they could expect a response.

"It will improve service delivery to the citizens significantly," Kaiser said.

The Public Works Department and the mayor’s office will test the system before it goes citywide, he said. — Scott Russell

City attorney will review jet fuel dumping Minneapolis City Attorney Jay Heffern said his office plans to complete a comprehensive review of airport issues that affect neighboring communities, including airplane "fuel dumping."

Jets may dump fuel during emergency landings, when aircraft have to drop weight to permit a safe landing. On March 21, for instance, a Trans Meridian charter jet had trouble on takeoff and dumped 4,000 gallons of fuel over Chicago and Portland avenues and between West 57th and 58th street.

Mayor R.T. Rybak also has pushed for more information on local jet fuel dumping, which his staff says has been difficult to obtain. His office plans to file a freedom of information Act request.

The airport research, slated for completion by April 1, is one of nearly two-dozen initiatives on the City Attorney’s 2004 Work Plan, presented to the Ways and Means Committee Dec. 8.

The attorney’s 2004 to-do list includes developing police-training manuals on domestic abuse and seeking significant jail time or other sanctions for chronic offenders identified by the City Attorney’s and Police Department.

The Attorney’s office provides legal counsel to the city, defends it against lawsuits and prosecutes crimes. It had 102 staff in 2003 and has a $10 million annual budget. — Scott Russell

City Council actions 12/15/03 meeting

Affordable housing: Council voted 10-0 to approve seven loans from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. They include up to $180,500 for Morrison Apartments (formerly Jack Frost Flats), 2630-2636 1st Ave. S. and up to $179,000 for four units owned by Structured Independent Living for Veterans, including one unit at 4632 1st Ave. S.

Housing policy: Council voted 10-0 to exempt from the city’s 20 percent affordability requirement any housing subsidized solely with noncity pollution remediation money and getting no other city subsidy.

Recreational fires: Council voted 13-0 to create an ordinance to regulate recreational fires, set fines and allow police to issue tickets (see larger story, Government section).

Mediation: Council voted 13-0 to approve the police mediation agreement, outlining ways to improve police-community relations.

Civil Rights: Council voted 12-0 to approve a series of appointments and reappointments to the Civil Rights Commission, including Maya C. Sullivan, 616 W. 53rd St. (13th Ward).

Police suit: Council voted 10-0 to pay $180,000 to Shyanna Freeman to settle a lawsuit against the police. Barbara Johnson (4th Ward), Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) and Barret Lane (13th Ward) abstained. In 2001, an officer attempted to give Freeman a citation for walking against a "do not walk" sign with two small children in Northeast Minneapolis, a city memo said. A confrontation ensued after Freeman, then 17, walked away. The officer took her to the ground and handcuffed her.

Lead suit: Council voted 13-0 to pay $108,171 to Sustainable Resources Center, Inc., (SRC) 1916 2nd Ave. S., to settle a lawsuit over lead abatement work it did under city contract. The city had stopped paying because of invoice discrepancies, a city memo said. SRC sued for $204,600.

Kulan Caf: Council voted 13-0 to uphold a Planning Commission vote to grant a parking variance to Kulan Caf, 120-1/2 W. Lake St. The variance reduces Kulan’s parking requirement from 21 spaces to none.

3630 Zenith: Council voted 8-4 to uphold the Planning Commission and deny the appeal of the owners of 3630 Zenith to get a conditional-use permit to build a three-story building. Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward) Robert Lilligren (8th ward), Gary Schiff (9th ward), Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) voted no and Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) abstained.

Cushman residence: Council voted 13-0 to deny application to rezone the Cushman residence at 3639 1st Ave. S. from R-1 to R-3A to make the existing two-family dwelling conform to zoning.

Schoenecker building: Council voted 13-0 to pass an ordinance to rezone the Schoenecker building, 1728 W. Lake St., from R-6 to-C-1 to permit an office and two dwelling units.

Ramar: The Council voted 10-0 to consent to the county’s sale of the Ramar building, 111 E. Franklin Ave. and 2007 Stevens Ave. S. to Franklin Lofts Housing Project.

2741 Blaisdell: Council voted 13-0 to deny an appeal by Isidro Perez, 2741 Blaisdell, who sought to lift city requirements that he remove a refuse storage enclosure from the parking lot. The city imposed the condition as part of a conditional-use permit it granted to allow the parking lot. — Scott Russell