Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Big Win for True Thai

For the past few years, Second Ward small business True Thai has been embroiled in a strange, byzantine conflict with the Met Council (and the City, which unfortunately acts as the Met Council's 'enforcer' in this case) over the issue of Sewer Access Charges, or SAC. They recently won a major victory, with the help of diligent City staff, Seward Redesign, and my office.

If you're not familiar with SAC, count yourself lucky. The short version is that the Met Council charges new developments a fee based on the expected maximum daily output into the sanitary sewer system. There are SAC "units," which are now worth $2,000, and equal one residence or eight seats in a sit-down restaurant.

I have numerous problems with SAC: these fairly massive fees on new development typically leave the core cities, where we want development and density to occur, to fund new sewers in far-flung exurbs. Basically, new density in Minneapolis is forced to fund sprawl. And because the fees are charged on new development, despite the fact that they pay for ongoing work done by the Met Council, they leave the Met Council scrambling for funds when the economy enters a recession.

This is part of what happened to True Thai. Here, as far as my office has been able to piece it together, is the whole story:

In 2007, True Thai decided to expand, adding a whole new dining area in the building they've occupied since opening. This was great news - more jobs for residents and enough capacity to meet the neighborhood's growing demand for delicious Thai food. They were charged a SAC fee of $1,675 for each 8 new seats, and paid it. But they decided, for flexibility's sake, to install some convertible tables in the new dining room. These tables are usually square, and seat up to 4 people, but they have leaves that allow them to be converted to a 5-seater. True Thai's owner thought that these tables counted as 4 seats, and put them on his plan as such.

After the economy started to turn sour in early 2008, True Thai decided to try something new to boost business: a sidewalk cafe. He went through the City's licensing process and was approved for 28 seats, though he only ever put out 20. No one informed him that there would be any SAC impact, because at that time the Met Council had not yet decided to charge SAC for outdoor seating. He used the outdoor seating for a few months, from July through September. Unfortunately, the sidewalk cafe did not increase business - existing customers simply went outside.

During this period, True Thai blogged about the new sidewalk cafe, and in answer to a question from a commenter rounded the number of seats in the restaurant up. The blog was noted by a Met Council employee - all indications are that the Met Council, since the economic downturn, has been paying people to trawl the internet for restaurants to hit up for more cash - and performed an audit of the restaurant.

The Met Council then sent the City a bill for $7,750, for "unpaid" SAC fees at True Thai, $6,000 for the outdoor seating and $1,675 for the additional seats made possible by the convertible tables. It is the City's responsibility (under State law) to pay what the Met Council demands, and pass the costs along to businesses like True Thai. Our staff dutifully followed through, sending a bill for the full amount to True Thai.

True Thai was just one of several businesses across the metro area to be hit by the Met Council's new policy - which had not been discussed, as far as I can tell, with any stakeholders, be they local governments or businesses - that outdoor seating counted towards SAC. The City, along with other local governments, businesses and business groups, advocated against the policy. It was wrongheaded for numerous reasons: outdoor seats cannot be used in the winter or inclement weather, and as True Thai shows, they do not usually increase the total number of people being served by the business.

We succeeded in partially changing the Met Council's mind. They decided that outdoor seats should not be charged 100% of a SAC unit (again, $2,000/8 seats), but instead a much more reasonable 25% rate. However, they made the absolutely unsupportable decision that this new rate would not be retroactive. True Thai, along with a dozen other Minneapolis small businesses, was caught in a Kafka-esque situation. Had they applied for a sidewalk cafe a few years prior, they would not have had to pay any SAC whatsoever. Had they applied one year (or even six months!) later, they would have had to pay only $1,500. But because they had, by an accident of fate, applied at exactly the wrong time, the Met Council decided that they remained on the hook for $6,000, for 20 seats that they had used for approximately 3 months.

I'm sure it's not news to anyone that recessions a tough time for small businesses, especially restaurants. I take True Thai's word that they could not have afforded this $6,000 hit. This fee could have put them out of business.

True Thai decided to fight the fee, and sought support wherever they could find it. Their landlord, which just happens to be Seward Redesign, the local Community Development Corporation, became a fierce advocate on their behalf. City staff appealed to the Met Council to change its mind on multiple occasions. (Deserving of special thanks: Julie Casey in Inspections, Mary Ubl in Development Review, and Henry Reimer in Regulatory Services.) I fought for True Thai in every way I could, encouraging staff to continue to argue the point with the Met Council, and pushing the issue in the Regulatory Energy and Environment committee.

Yesterday, all of everyone's hard work paid off. The Met Council has dropped the $6,000 fee. True Thai can, if they choose, apply for a new sidewalk cafe under the new rate, which will be less than $1,500. As I understand it, True Thai's owner paid the remaining $1,750 for the additional inside seats today, making this a win even for the Met Council - better to collect $1,750 today than to never collect $7,750!

Congratulations to True Thai for their big win, to staff for their tenacity and persistence, to Redesign for their effective advocacy, and to the Met Council for - albeit a little belatedly - making the right decision.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Memorial Ride for Dennis Dumm

As we celebrate being named Bicycling Magazine's best biking city in the world, we need to keep in mind that our streets are not always safe for cyclists, sometimes with tragic consequences. Tomorrow is one year from the day that Dennis Dumm was struck by a large truck and killed while riding in the Park Avenue bike lane. As you can read here, Dennis' friends have put together a memorial ride for tomorrow. I plan to be there, and I hope many other cyclists, whether we knew Dennis or not, will join the ride. Here are the details:

Gather at Park Ave and the Midtown Greenway at 7:30am for a slow and silent ride to the intersection of Park Ave and 14th Street for moment of reflection at 7:40. Bring flowers to leave at the memorial if you can.

You can find more information about Dennis and the crash a year ago here.

Construction Beginning on Central Corridor

Construction is beginning on elements of the Central Corridor LRT line in Minneapolis. In September, the project will begin prep work to retrofit the Washington Avenue bridge to accommodate light-rail trains by reconstructing the bridge piers. They are also beginning work on the “advance traffic improvements” to the area around the campus. These improvements include new traffic signals and turn lanes in and around the University East Bank Campus. In December, they will start work to tie in the Central Corridor line from the Hiawatha LRT line just west of the Cedar-Riverside Station to Pleasant Street on the East Bank. The bulk of the work in Minneapolis will start in spring 2011. If you would like to receive weekly construction updates from the Central Corridor project, go here.

Good News on Pensions

Thanks to the good work of City staff and my colleagues on the Council, the City has won two major victories for Minneapolis taxpayers this week on pensions.

The first came with the signing of the state budget. The Legislature and Governor have granted the City’s request to fold the Minneapolis Employees Retirement Fund (or MERF) into a larger state pension fund. This means that beneficiaries/pensioners of now have assurance their benefits will continue and the fund will not fail. This is a very big deal for Minneapolis, the result of years of work. Deserving of special credit: our Intergovernmental Relations (or IGR) staff, the chairs of the IGR committee (Betsy Hodges from 2006-2009 and Elizabeth Glidden since), Senator Don Betzold and Rep Mary Murphy, and our Finance Department staff Pat Born and Heather Johnston.

The second came just days later. In a major victory for Minneapolis taxpayers, Judge Janet Poston ruled in favor of the City of Minneapolis’ position that two closed pension funds, the Minneapolis Police Relief Association (MPRA) and the Minneapolis Firefighters Relief Association (MFRA), must repay over $52 million in overpayments of benefits that the funds have improperly paid out to members since June of 2000. The total amount that the funds must recoup, however, is higher than $52 million, since Judge Poston ruled that the funds must calculate the amount they have overcharged the City dating back to 2000. The City has calculated that the funds’ overpayment to members from June 2000 through the end of 2009 totals more than $75 million.

In a previous ruling, Judge Poston had identified three ways that the MFRA and MPRA have violated Minnesota law and their own bylaws in improperly calculating benefits to their members, which she ruled has caused Minneapolis taxpayers “great and irreparable harm.” Judge Poston also found that the funds’ improper calculation of benefits would have cost Minneapolis taxpayers $86 million more in the future. The Judge has ordered that by early June, the funds must present to the Court and City their plans to pay the City back, and that they must start recovering the overpayments by July 1.

This decision will ease a significant financial pressure on the City’s budget, and represents the City’s commitment both to pensioners and to taxpayers. I commend our Attorney's Office on this major win.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Challenging the Convention Convention

This morning, I was the only Council Member to vote against a resolution indicating the City's interest in hosting the 2012 Democratic National Convention. I wanted to explain some of my reasoning.

I have nothing against the DNC. Though I am not a member of that party, I wish them all the best. However, I want to challenge the conventional thinking that major party conventions are a net positive for our city. I have not seen any evidence that the positive impacts of hosting these conventions outweigh the negative impacts and stresses that accompany them.

More importantly, I am deeply uncomfortable with the way that security is handled at major party conventions. During the RNC in 2008, Minneapolis was forced (in order to host the convention) to give up local control of our police force and subordinate them to a security plan that we could not see or impact in any way. I voted against giving this power away as well, and was one of only two Council Members to do so. The convention security agreements led to preemptive raids on Second Ward residents - initiated by the Ramsey County Sheriff - inappropriate and ill-advised crackdowns on peaceful protests, and other suspensions of civil liberties. I cannot in good conscience welcome another national major party convention to our city until and unless the approach to security – and the balance between security and free speech – changes significantly.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Pedestrian Advisors Wanted

The City is looking for more people to serve on our new and improved Pedestrian Advisory Committee

The Pedestrian Advisory Committee has existed since 2006 and is has recently been expanded to include more community members. The committee exists to advise City leadership on policies, programs and actions improving pedestrian safety, mobility, accessibility and comfort; promote walking for transportation, recreation and health; and strengthen the connection between the pedestrian environment and public transportation. Term lengths are two years.

Members who reside or own a business in the city and who have an interest in promoting walking and improving the pedestrian environment in Minneapolis are encouraged to apply.

For more information about this committee or to apply to serve, visit Applications may be submitted at any time and will be kept on file for 12 months. For appointments in the summer of 2010, priority will be given to applications received by May 28.

Please contact Anna Flintoft if you have questions about the Pedestrian Advisory Committee. 612-673-3885,

Monday, May 10, 2010

Supporting a Campus Beyond Coal

Campus Beyond Coal is a national effort of the Sierra Club's that is working to stop the burning of coal at campuses through out the country. A twin cities group started this year and is building support and momentum in and around the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses.

They are working to convince the U of M administration to set a timeline for when they will stop burning coal. Since Xcell converted its Minneapolis plant to natural gas, this is the only facility burning coal in the city.

Last week I presented a resolution in support of this effort. The resolution passed unanimously at the Regulatory, Energy and Environment committee meeting.

I give credit to Missy Gettel from the Minnesota Student Association and the Campus Beyond Coal group at the University for bringing this issue to the forefront. Several neighborhood associations near campus, including the Southeast Como Improvement Association and the Seward Neighborhood Group, have also weighed in calling for the an end to coal burning at the Minneapolis plant which is already equipped to burn natural gas and bio mass.

Here is the resolution that I hope will gain full Council support this Friday.

By Gordon

Supporting the University of Minnesota’s Efforts to Become Carbon-

Whereas, the University of Minnesota has a comprehensive planning effort underway to implement sustainability goals, including a Regents’ policy to reduce dependence on nonrenewable resources and implement a sustainability metric system on campus; and

Whereas, President Robert Bruininks signed the President’s Climate Commitment in January of 2008, which pledges the University of Minnesota to voluntarily achieve climate neutrality; and

Whereas the University is committed to engaging students, faculty and staff in the process to implement sustainability goals for the University; and

Whereas, the Minnesota Student Association on behalf of the University of Minnesota students has resolved and organized to support the transition by the University of Minnesota to coal-free sources of power and achieving climate neutrality at University campuses throughout the state; and

Whereas, the University has made significant capital improvements and operational changes to reduce its emissions and transitioned from primarily producing steam by burning coal to now producing less than 30% of its steam content by burning coal; and

Whereas, the University burns an estimated 38,000 tons of coal a year;

Whereas, Xcel Energy’s Highbridge Plant in St. Paul and Riverside Plant in Minneapolis were both recently converted from coal to natural gas making the Central University Steam Plant on the Mississippi River in Southeast Minneapolis the only remaining coal burning energy plant in the Twin Cities; and

Whereas, fine air particulates produced by burning coal contribute to air pollution, unhealthy air days and asthma; and

Whereas, many adopted City goals support reduction of emissions from burning carbon based fossil fuels, including:
- The Climate Change Sustainability Indicator, which calls for a 17% citywide reduction of carbon emissions by 2020
- The Renewable Energy Sustainability Indicator, which calls for a 10% citywide increase in renewable energy production by 2014
- The Air Quality Sustainability Indicator, which calls for a reduction in air toxins

Now, Therefore, Be It Resolved by The City Council of The City of Minneapolis:

That the City of Minneapolis commends the University of Minnesota for working to establish a campus sustainability committee and supports the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Student Association in their efforts to become climate neutral, transition away from burning coal, and fully implement the Regents policy on Sustainability and Energy Efficiency and the President’s Climate Commitment.

Monday, May 03, 2010

On (Not) Traveling to Arizona

As you can read here, Mayor Rybak has urged all Minneapolis departments not to travel to the state of Arizona. I strongly support this request, have thanked the Mayor for making it, and would support an outright ban on publicly-financed travel to Arizona as long as the terrible, racist immigration law that recently passed remains in place.

I am proud that Minneapolis is among the ranks of cities that do not allow our employees to inquire about any person's immigration status. This policy ensures that all Minneapolitans can feel secure when reporting crimes, requesting emergency assistance, or simply sharing concerns. As our police chief has testified before the Legislature, we're a safer city due to this policy.

And I would submit that we are a better one. Our nation clearly needs to come to a sustainable and fair consensus on the question of immigration. Until that happens, states and local governments should be in the business of serving everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or even immigration status. To do otherwise, as I am afraid we will see all too well in Arizona, is to invite racist actions by law enforcement and exploitation by other sectors of society.

I stand with the Mayor: do not travel to Arizona.