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:

Monday, August 29, 2011

Star Tribune Continues the Attack on Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator

The Star Tribune is out with an editorial calling the hiring of a Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator "tone deaf." I find it incredible how tone-deaf the Star Tribune can be. Scant days after a heart-rending letter to the editor on their own editorial page from the father of a bicyclist killed on Minneapolis streets, this once-reputable paper runs an editorial indicating that, though a bicycle-safety related position is not "fluff," (or that calling it that is "too harsh," anyway) it should have been delayed indefinitely because... wait for it... the optics are wrong. Some Tea Partier may be offended and use this position, which exists in many other comparable cities, created with no new dollars, in the same timeframe as potential layoffs in another department as fodder for a substanceless attack on Minneapolis.

But wait, the Star Tribune has already done just that! Has the Minneapolis Star Tribune become a mouthpiece of the Tea Party? Is our city well-served by such a media outlet?

One must ask oneself: when would the timing be right, in the view of the Star Tribune, to hire a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator? When another bicyclist is killed on the streets of Minneapolis, one can't help but assume. Such a hiring - though too late by at least one tragedy - would certainly look responsive and resolute in light of an event within the most recent news cycle, just as a responsible hire, in the works for months, looks "tone deaf" when juxtaposed with unrelated potential layoffs. If that sounds cynical to you, then you must be tone deaf too.

However, the most unfortunate revelation of the last few days is that, like disreputable faux-journalism outfits like Fox News (the national cable channel, not the local affiliate, which is currently performing better than the Strib), the Star Tribune editorial operation now appears to be writing news stories. Consider: this lazy, sensationalistic editorial sounds the same themes as a lazy, sensationalistic bit of "news" run earlier in the week. Said "news" article cherry-picks deliciously inflammatory quotes from Fire union officials while conveniently "running out of space" for any outside advocate for the coordinator, despite the fact that the reporter interviewed at least one. I guess pro-bicyclist sources just don't have set the right "tone" for either the news or editorial side of the operation - assuming there is still a separation.

Because we now know how critically important the appropriate tone is to the Star Tribune.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Letters on Bicycle Coordinator

This morning, the Star Tribune ran three letters on the bicycle coordinator kerfuffle they created yesterday. The most striking was from Harry Hull, Audrey Hull's father. It's heartbreaking:

My daughter, Audrey Hull, was recently killed by a truck while riding her bicycle at the corner of 15th Av. and 4th St. in Minneapolis.

If the city had hired a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator years ago -- a position that exists in many comparable cities -- the changes now proposed for that demonstrably dangerous corner might have been in place on April 21, 2011, and Audrey might still be alive.

I urge Minneapolis to proceed with its plans to hire the bicyclist and pedestrian coordinator so that fewer families will have to bear the emptiness that I now carry in my heart.

Jim Skoog, the Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee member representing Ward Four, called the Strib on its shoddy, sensationalistic coverage:

The article misleads readers into thinking that the firefighters are being fired so that a bicycle/pedestrian coordinator can be hired. This type of journalistic laziness is expected from basement bloggers and not from a reputable publication.

The timing of the firefighter layoffs and of the coordinator job announcement is purely coincidental. There are two separate stories here:

• Why is the city laying off firefighters?

• Why is the city hiring a bicycle/pedestrian coordinator?

Now, try again, reporting on them separately.

And there was a letter from a Minneapolis resident who is appalled that the Council and Mayor are laying off firefighters and... teachers?

That the mayor and City Council in Minneapolis can lay off firefighters and teachers and still have the gall to hire a "bicycle coordinator" is an appalling example of the disconnect between the current leadership and the needs of the community ("Despite fiscal woes, city aims to hire bike coordinator," Aug. 25). The taxpaying community, that is. [Emphasis added.]

That's quite a feat, seeing as how the Council and Mayor don't control the schools or make decisions about whether or not to lay off teachers. That's the School Board's responsibility. I guess it just goes to show that when a major media outlet sows confusion, its readership ends up confused.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Deadly Hit and Run in Seward

On Tuesday, August 23rd, at 11pm, 39-year-old True Thai employee Anousone Phanthavong was hit and killed by what State Patrol officers believe was a Mercedes SUV on the Riverside ramp up from I-94.  The driver fled the scned.  If you know anything about this incident, please call the Minneapolis Police Department at (612) 692-TIPS.

Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator

The Star Tribune has run an article regarding an apparent conflict between funding for firefighters and for a new Bicycle and Pedestrian coordinator in Public Works.  I don't see it.  I support having both an adequately staffed fire department and an adequately staffed Public Works department that includes a new bicycle and pedestrian coordinator within our transportation team.  I believe that transportation services, including maintaining streets, traffic signals, parking services and related infrastructure in a core essential service the City provides.

I am concerned that the article presents a false choice between this coordinator position and public safety.  In fact, the bike/walk coordinator position is a public safety position.  According to the records from our Public Works department, there were 46 bike/ped fatalities in Minneapolis between 2000 and 2009, and 5,509 bicyclists and pedestrians (that we know of) have been hit in that same timeframe.

These are big numbers, and it's easy to lose sight of the human suffering behind each one.  So I ask you to remember Audrey Hull, the young woman who was hit and killed in Ward 2 earlier this year, and the pain that unnecessary tragedy caused to her family and friends.

Safer, better designed infrastructure can save lives.  That's not an assertion, it's a fact, borne out by the studies that have looked into road treatments like bike lanes.  By helping us build more and better bike and pedestrian infrastructure, this coordinator will help prevent deaths like Audrey's.

There are other, less important arguments against the clear implication of this story - that the City is wasting money on "fluff" as we consider cutting core services.  The problem with this line of reasoning is that this position is not being created with new dollars, and it will save the City money.

The Public Works administration has reallocated resources in its department in a more efficient way to create this position.  Currently, there are at least three City employees who do some bicycle and/or pedestrian coordination, in addition to other duties.

Better coordination will ensure that we spend our scarce resources more effectively.  The cheapest, easiest way to install an on-street bike facility is to do it as part of another planned project.  That's how we got bike lanes on Franklin in the Seward neighborhood this summer, and how we're getting lanes added to Riverside.  But we're also at risk of missing opportunities - the portion of Franklin west of Minnehaha and the portion of 26th Ave S from Franklin to the Greenway are good examples.  A coordinator will help the City identify and seize opportunities to build bike facilities in the most efficient way, getting more for our constrained funding.

And a large part of this person's job will be to find additional resources from outside the City.  Much of the progress we've made over the past few years has been due to federal and state funding programs - the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot program, the State Health Improvement Program, Communities Putting Prevention to Work, SAFETEA-LU, etc.  If we are to continue to improve safety for bicyclists in Minneapolis, these outside sources of funding are essential.

Other communities that have had success in making bicycling and walking safe and convenient choices have full-time bicycle or bicycle and pedestrian coordinators.  It's not a new idea, where Minneapolis is out on a limb; Portland, OR, Chicago, IL, New York, NY, Boulder, CO, Davis, CA, San Francisco, CA, Miami, FL, Washington, DC, and Boston, MA, all already have bicycle coordinators.

The decision to create this position a very deliberate and thoughtful one, arrived at because it is a good idea.  It was a good idea when it was put forth as a unanimous recommendation from our Bicycle Advisory Committee, it was a good idea when it was embraced by our Public Works administration, and it's a good idea today.  In fact, I believe that it's taken us too long to hire a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.  It will improve public safety, prevent unnecessary death and injury, and ensure that Minneapolis is making the most effective use of our limited resources.  It is irresponsible to suggest that this is "fluff," or in any way less worthy than any other City funding for public safety, and I will strongly oppose any attempt to redirect funds from this position to other uses.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

2011 Budget and Firefighters

Last Friday, at one of the most contentious Council meetings I've experienced in some time, I joined seven of my colleagues in voting for a plan to save 10 Minneapolis firefighters from being laid off.

How did we get here?

The dilemma we faced Friday was a direct result of the State Legislature's decision not to provide the City its allotted $87.5 million for 2011, as part of the State reallocation of the local property and sales taxes it collects from Minneapolis and other cities throughout the state.  Instead, for no defensible reason other than an incapacity to balance its own budget, the State allocated only $64 million. 

That's a cut of $23.5 million, to a general fund of $392 million, 46% of which is dedicated to Police and Fire.  There's no way around it - the Legislature assured that we'd be making painful cuts to balance this year's budget.

Because we knew this was a possibility earlier this year, the Council passed a supplemental "plan B" budget.  (You can see how this impacts departments across the city enterprise here.)  Under that plan, the Fire Department faced a $1.45 million cut.  If we'd made that cut at the start of the year, it would've meant 17 firefighter layoffs.  In August, with about two thirds of the year already over, it would've been a much more staggering cut - 44 firefighters.

Instead, the Mayor and the Council President brought forth a proposal to use the City's contingency fund (think of it as the "snowy day" fund) to of set the cuts to police and fire, with $1.1 million going to the Fire Department.  That proposal would have resulted in laying off 10 firefighters. An additional 3 positions would be left vacant after mandatory retirements.

Last Friday, however, an alternative proposal was brought forward by Council members Schiff and Colvin Roy.  I voted for the alternate proposal.  It also uses contingency fund dollars, but in addition it takes funding from vacant positions in several other City departments to cover the Fire budget, preventing firefighter layoffs at this time.  This in turn prevents the Fire Department from having to lay off any firefighters, close rigs, and rotate that closure throughout the city, resulting in potentially life-threatening delays in fire response in various neighborhoods - including some in the Second Ward.
The Mayor promised before the vote to veto this action.  He did so on Friday afternoon.  His reasons include not wanting to balance the Fire Department budget with one-time fixes.

I understand that rationale.  I don't want a structurally imbalanced budget either.  However, by using contingency funds to reduce the layoffs from 44 to 10, we're already using a one-time fix.  One-time fixes aren't the problem on their own - it's relying on them in budget after budget, as the State does, that is irresponsible.  Taking the action that the Council majority did preserves our options for the 2012 budget.  We may well have to lay off firefighters in order to make the 2012 budget balance, in addition to making many other painful cuts. 

There are other issues that we must take up in the next several months.  Chief Jackson must get the Fire Department's overtime and sick leave spending under control.  This has been a challenge because the labor agreement allows up to 6 days of a year off without explanation for each firefighter and there is also a need to maintain a safe level of service each day.  The Council needs to review the vacant building inspections program, which two years ago was we assigned to the Fire Department to be a revenue generator for the Department but appears to actually be costing them money and staff. We also need the time to engage the larger community in a serious discussion about what the basic "standard of coverage" should be. What should be the minimum number of on-duty firefighters for every shift be? Is it worth raising property taxes to maintain this?  Another action we took that I supported related to this includes directing the Chief to apply for a federal SAFER grant that could help fund staff positions and to suspend the standard of coverage requirement and leave that up to the discretion of the Fire Chief, as we do with other departments in including the police.

If you are interested there is some useful data online that will help inform the conversation, although there are still many questions to be answered.

To give us time to have these conversations without resulting in diminished public safety service to residents for the latter part of this year, I plan to vote to override the Mayor's veto.  If an alternative proposal comes forward for more stable funding that the Mayor indicates he will sign, I may reconsider this position.  But so far, no such alternative solution has been found.

This is a challenging issue and in times made more challenging because of the approach taken at the state legislature. Because of the limited number of ways to raise revenue available to us, we are forced to decide between cutting core services or raising property taxes on the middle class.  The state, on the to her hand, could use a progressive income tax system to raise the income tax on the wealthiest Minnesotans to better fund its obligations to cities and counties through the state. 

Though I disagree with the Mayor and some of my colleagues on this issue, I know that everyone is trying to do the right thing, in a very difficult situation not of our own making.