The city pulse

A look at what’s in store for City Hall this year and a recap of last year’s actions

The city’s 2008 agenda

Unfinished business could dominate the agenda in 2008 at City Hall, at least early in the year.

Some Minneapolis City Council members said they plan to work on a range of issues from addressing the mortgage foreclosure crisis to carrying out the city’s vision for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on I-35W to deciding the future of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) to re-evaluating the property tax policy.

Council President Barbara Johnson (4th Ward) predicts that national issues will be felt at the local level this year and could affect the Council’s agenda. She is particularly concerned over how a recession could impact Minneapolis.

“That’s my biggest concern going forward — just the national trends affecting us,” she said.

Foreclosures, for example, have plagued Minneapolis. The city is already addressing the problem, but it is one that will carry over and be a big issue throughout 2008, Johnson said. She believes the fallout from foreclosures is just beginning to be realized. As of Dec. 26, there had been 5,647 Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department foreclosure sales in 2007.

Foreclosures could have a big impact on the city’s property tax base, which worries Johnson. In 2007, the city got around 17 percent of its revenue from property taxes, according to the city budget.

“I think this housing thing is going to get worse,” said Johnson, whose ward, which spans North Minneapolis west of I-94, has especially been swamped with foreclosures.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden’s 8th Ward, which includes neighborhoods in Southwest and South Central Minneapolis, has also been affected by foreclosures.

“That is something where it’s just very painful to me, and I think almost every other public servant, to see what is happening to people and their life savings,” she said. “I think it has had a lot of attention, but obviously this is just a tremendous issue.”

Council Vice President Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) expects transportation will be another focus during the year ahead.

Thanks to the Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) — the state still has to pass legislation to provide matching dollars — the city is going ahead with design plans to add a second bus lane on Marquette and 2nd avenues in Downtown. There will be an additional bus lane as well as wider sidewalks, better waiting shelters and lighting, and landscaping. The Council issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for design work in December.

Glidden also thinks transportation will be a hot issue at City Hall this year. The UPA grant will help Minneapolis get closer to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). It is generally known as a system that allows buses to operate on a right-of-way that is separate from other traffic, such as a bus-only lane. The goal is to have BRT between Downtown and Lakeville, she said.

In Lilligren’s ward, he will work on the reopening of Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street. However, he said, the actual reopening won’t happen for a while.

He and Glidden said the Council will continue to work on a plan for the NRP’s future during the early part of the year. A work group, of which Lilligren was a member, released a report in late December with suggestions for NRP. The main conclusion of the report: the program will exist after 2009 when the city’s financial obligation technically ends.

But the Council’s work, such as making any decisions about NRP, is far from over. The Council will begin seeking input from neighborhood organizations and other stakeholders beginning this month.

“That will be continuing on in 2008 for sure,” he said.

Lilligren doesn’t have a crystal ball, of course, but he also believes the Council will spend considerable time on the 2009 budget, specifically the city’s property tax policy. The city has been increasing property taxes by 8 percent each year since 2002. The policy is in place to help erase city debt.

He said several Council members believe the city is in “crisis mode.” Glidden said there’s almost universal agreement among the Council that taxpayers cannot endure the increases for much longer. Her hope is that there will be a public conversation about the policy this year.

“Having an 8 percent tax policy — it’s just unsustainable for the residents,” she said.

A look back at 2007

Anyway you slice it, City Hall saw a busy but bizarre year in 2007.

A bridge fell. Two City Council members tried to run the circus out of town. The Minneapolis Public Library went down in history after city and county leaders voted to merge the system with Hennepin County libraries.

The Twin Cities won a bid to host the 2008 Republican National Convention. And the city was sued — often — most recently for alleged racial discrimination in the Police Department.

Council President Barbara Johnson (4th Ward) called it a “progressive” year.

“I would think it was a progressive year, particularly in light of, you know, dealing with some of the major challenges that we have in front of us,” she said.
Those challenges included the merger between the Minneapolis Public Library and Hennepin County Library systems, which she called “futuristic.”

However, she was frustrated with two Council actions — when it issued an RFP for the city’s garbage hauler and considered a wild animal ban.

In December, she was one of two Council members to oppose the decision to issue an RFP for a garbage hauler in the contracted part of the city. She was one of four who voted against divvying up the contracted portion into four parts so that one or more sections could be bid on. Council Member Paul Ostrow (1st Ward) called it transparent government, but Johnson criticized the Council’s actions during an interview.

“There’s a sense on the Council that we need to go out and test the market in this garbage contract. I am just terrified that we will mess up our garbage system, and I think there’s going to be a human outcry if we do from our citizens,” she said.

She didn’t think the Council should spend time on a proposed circus ban, either. Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) introduced a ban on circus animals in June. At the time, he and Council Member Cam Gordon (2nd Ward) argued that a ban would better align with the city’s policy against the inhumane treatment of animals.

The ban was ultimately defeated in September, but there is a proposal on the table for stronger regulations over the treatment and care of circus animals. At the September meeting, Johnson said the Council should put the issue behind it.

“I think sometimes we get sort of pulled off of what is essential city business by special interests who look to us to further their causes, and this is one that I would point to,” Johnson said.

Circus ban aside, Johnson was happy with the Council’s role in the library merger.

The proposed library consolidation required Council attention throughout 2007.

In February, two committees confirmed what some people had been thinking for years and recommended a merger. The Council approved the merger in December at its last meeting for the year.

“A lot of time and a lot of effort both in 2007 and in 2006 was put into evaluating options and looking at how to both preserve and enhance the excellent library service we know people need and deserve,” said Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward). “I do feel this is the best option.”

Public safety and transportation also dominated Council time.

Council Vice President Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) reflected on the past year from a ward standpoint.

“There’s always, in my part of the city, the overriding crime issues,” he said.

He was happy to see city dollars put toward new technology, such as ShotSpotters, which is a gunshot-detection system that activates sensors to triangulate the location of gunfire, according to the mayor’s office.

“We got a lot of technology up and running, and that’s helping a lot,” he said.

Aside from working on crime prevention, Glidden and other members of the Council’s Ways and Means Committee met with the Police Department throughout the year to work on financial issues, such as the department’s going over budget, the its overtime policy and staffing.

Transportation is another ongoing issue, from using hybrid buses to alleviating traffic congestion.

The Council approved a resolution supporting a BRT station on Lake Street and a connection to the Midtown Greenway, as part of the I-35W Access Project. It also approved the Downtown portion of the 10-Year Transportation Action Plan.

The I-35W bridge collapse was a historical event in the city and state, but the Council did not have to spend significant time on it. Its biggest role was in approving plans to replace the bridge.

State law required their action. The state has a majority of control over the project.

Reach Brady Gervais at bgervais@mnpubs.com or 436-4373.

Timeline

A look at the key issues for the City Council in 2007

“McMansions”
February: Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) proposes changing the zoning ordinance code to help curb mammoth infill housing in Southwest neighborhoods.
March: Community members look at proposed changes to the zoning ordinance that would minimize the impact of new homes and additions.
April: Minneapolis Planning Commission holds public hearing on zoning ordinance changes.
June: The Council passes an ordinance that limits the square footage of a home to 50 percent of the square footage of a lot or 2,500 square feet. It also limits the height of single-family and two-family homes.

Panhandling
May 11: Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) and Council Member Paul Ostrow (1st Ward) introduce a panhandling ordinance with tougher restrictions.
June 6: A Council Committee approves a stricter panhandling ordinance after holding a public hearing. It bans people from asking for money within 80 feet of an ATM or financial institution entrance; within 50 feet of parks, sporting facilities and the Minneapolis Convention Center; and within 10 feet of crosswalks, convenience stores, gas stations and liquor stores. It also prohibits two or more people asking for money and does not allow solicitation at night.
June 15: The Council approves the ordinance.

Library consolidation
February: The Committee on the Future of Libraries and the Library Advisory Committee recommend consolidating the Minneapolis Public Library and Hennepin County Library systems.
March: The Council supports a resolution recommending the library merger.
April: The Council passes a resolution pledging that it would work with the Minneapolis Public Library Board to ensure the city’s library employees will not “suffer a loss of wages” with a merger.
Dec. 21: The Council approves the merger.

Circus animals ban
June: Remington introduces a ban on circus animals.
July: The Council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee sets a public hearing on circus animals for Aug. 8.
Sept. 12: More than 100 people pack Council Chambers for a Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee hearing on banning circuses in Minneapolis. Supporters and opponents argue their case. The committee sent the proposed ban to the full Council without recommendation.
Sept. 21: The Council narrowly rejects a circus ban and instead decides to consider a measure that would increase regulations for inspecting and overseeing the care of animals. It sends the issue back to committee.
Sept. 26: The Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee orders staff to review the city’s wild animals ordinance and report back in November.
November: The issue is postponed.
December: The issue is postponed.

I-35W bridge
Aug. 1:
The I-35W bridge collapses.
Aug. 4: The City Council backs up Mayor R.T. Rybak by declaring a State of Emergency.
Aug. 31: The Council outlines its priorities for a special session, including requests for bridge and local government aid funding.
September: The Council holds a public hearing on the proposed layout for the replacement of the bridge.
October: The Council approves plans to replace the bridge.