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: http://secondward.blogspot.com/2006/05/disclaimer.html#links

Saturday, November 29, 2014

New U of M Power Plant on the River

The University of Minnesota has applied for an air emissions permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in order to construct a new “Combined Heat and Power Plant” using the building adjacent to the Education Sciences Building and the Dinkytown Greenway Bridge on the East Bank. In order to do so they have completed an Environmental Assessment Worksheet. The MPCA took public comment on the Environmental Assessment Worksheet through November 26; and will be taking comment on the air emissions permit through December 1, 2014. According to the University the Combined Heat and Power (CHP) Plant will provide the Minneapolis campus with power and steam, and reduce overall utility costs by up to $2 million per year and will reduce the University's net carbon footprint by an estimated 65,000 metric tons of CO2 by efficiently using "waste" heat from generating electricity.  The steam will be used to heat campus buildings and for sterilizing equipment in the labs and University of Minnesota Medical Center hospitals and clinics. I was glad to learn that the Power Plant is to be fueled by natural gas. It will become the primary utility for the Minneapolis campus and the University's Southeast Steam Plant, at 600 Main Street SE, will become the secondary source of steam, as a back-up to the new facility. Two aging coal-fired boilers at the Southeast Steam Plant will be eliminated.

While the MPCA alone, and not the city, has the authority to require a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), anyone can comment. I submitted the following comments to the MPCA 

First I want to recognize many potential benefits of this project. If it indeed replaces inefficient and unreliable 1940s-era coal burners, moves the University away from the burning of coal and towards its long-term climate action plan goals of reducing the campus carbon footprint by half by 2020, and reaching climate neutrality by 2050, this is significant and positive. I am also encouraged to learn that it will help reduce the University’s net carbon footprint by an estimated 65,000 metric tons of CO2 and that it will restore an old 100 year old building that has sat largely vacant for more than a decade.

I also have three general concerns that I would like to note and make sure get considered as the process moves forward. 

The proximity to the Mississippi is unfortunate and regrettable. While historically the riverbank has been industrial the trend in recent decades has been to move away from industrial and to improving public access to the river.  This portion of the river represents an area where there is very limited public access. Accommodations for trails and access would be appreciated. Additionally, we have worked hard in recent years to improve water quality of the river. This project could present an opportunity to improve water quality with better management practices. More added rain gardens and thought full landscaping could accommodate this.

Secondly, I am concerned about air quality. I want to ensure that we are taking into consideration the cumulative effects of adding this facility in this area that has historically been home to many polluting businesses as well as the specific impacts it may have on neighboring residential housing, including a densely populated area across the river. Additionally, as the federal clean air standards change, and become more stringent, I want to be sure we work hard to prevent new projects like this from making it more difficult for Minneapolis to reach that standard. The average for the Metro region from 2011-2013 is 67 ppb.  Depending on the final standard, we will already either be in non-attainment or very close.  Let’s work to make sure new projects help us move towards cleaner air.

Finally, I am concerned that the time allotted for comments was insufficient. I would ask that it be extended to allow community stakeholders, including city staff, additional time to review this project. I realize that if an EIS is required there will be more time for comments on that and that the air permit also needs review, but more time for comments on the EAW might also be beneficial, especially if an full EIS is not drafted. 

I know that some neighborhoods have already weighed in and it will be interesting to see what comments have been generated so far.   

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

2015 Budget

In light of the recent article in the Star Tribune, which makes it sound like the Council opposes many of the most important things in the mayor’s budget, I want to lay out the parts of the budget I support, and those I’m open to changing.

I strongly support the new positions to focus on equity.  I strongly support spending capital dollars on protected bikeways.  I strongly support creating a citywide curbside organic composting program.  I think the people of Minneapolis and the majority of my colleagues on the Council support these initiatives as well.  Here’s a little run down, one by one.

On equity:

Minneapolis has among the largest gaps between whites and people of color among all large cities in the US, in many different measures of success: income, wealth, employment, education, health and more.  This is not only unjust, but this fundamental problem drives many of the other challenges the City is forced to address, including crime.  We cannot and will never get a handle on crime and violence without addressing this root cause.

The inequities in our society are not accidental.  They were crafted over hundreds of years of injustice and disinvestment – very clear decisions by government to leave certain communities out of the prosperity of our city, our state and our nation.  But this is cause for hope, because it means that these toxic disparities are not natural, they are not inevitable.  If people – especially people in power – could build an unjust society in which people of color do worse on every measure of success, then people – especially those of us with some power – can remake our society to be more just.  I believe that we can build a city in which the color of a child’s skin is no longer a strong predictor of her later success in school, likelihood to suffer from Type II Diabetes, chance of being victim or perpetrator of a violent crime, the amount of money she will make, or her chances of ending up in prison.

But this will take work.  The existing systems of institutional racism were created, on purpose, over centuries.  They will not go away on their own.  We have to actually do something about them.

I’m proud that the City is stepping up to do this critical work.  It’s going to take time.  It’s going to take rigorous study.  Sometimes many of us – myself included – will feel frustrated that we aren't making more progress more quickly.  And this work will take resources.  I am proud to have helped move the conversation about equity forward in Minneapolis through the first equity in employment resolution back in August of 2012.  I am proud of Mayor Hodges for making it a priority in her campaign last year and in her first budget this fall.  I will be proud to vote for equity this December.

I believe that the people of Minneapolis agree.  That’s why they supported a mayor and majority of Council Members who made equity a key theme in their races last year.  In my conversations with my constituents, they understand that ending racial injustice is critical to the health of our city, that true public safety is impossible without social justice, and that the City has to be part of the solution to the racial inequities in our society.  I believe that a majority of my colleagues agree.

On protected bikeways:

Protected bikeways are one part of a much broader movement that recognizes that our current transportation system is unhealthy.  It’s unhealthy for the environment, because single-occupancy automobiles are a key contributor to climate change and poor air quality.  It’s unhealthy for our bodies, because a sedentary lifestyle is a key driver of obesity and many related diseases.  It’s unhealthy for our communities, because we can’t build thriving, vibrant commercial corridors and public spaces that are thruways dominated by autos.

So last year, the City Council unanimously passed a Climate Action Plan that called for the City to build 30 miles of new protected bikeways by 2020.  This strategy is in the plan because we have very good reason to believe that building more comfortable protected bikeways will help more types of people – from age 8 to age 80 – riding a bike in our city for transportation.  This is how the best bicycling cities in the world have achieved their current successes, like having a third of all trips on bike.

Protected bikeways, and supporting bicycling in general, is a piece of a broad shift we’re trying to make away from using cars for every trip, and towards walking, biking, transit, car sharing and more.  Public Works staff are currently working on a plan for exactly where we should build these 30 miles of new protected bikeways.  Now it’s time to put our money where our plans are, because we don’t build anything without resources.  That’s why both our Bicycle Advisory Committee and our Capital Long-Range Improvement Committee supported dedicating these dollars to building protected bikeways.  I find it odd that any of my colleagues who voted for the Climate Action Plan would oppose this funding; it seems like an admission that people should ignore the plans that we adopt, because we don’t necessarily mean them.

I’m proud to have helped start the conversation about protected bikeways in Minneapolis years ago by bringing up the “Copenhagenmodel” way back in 2007, and that my office helped shape the Climate Action Plan.  I’m proud of Mayor Hodges for including this funding for protected bikeways in her budget.  And I will be proud to vote for protected bikeways this December.

I believe that the people of Minneapolis agree.  I have heard loud and clear from my constituents that they want a more bikeable city.  When the Mayor gave her budget address, the funding for protected bikeways got more positive attention than any other single proposal.  And I believe that a majority of my colleagues agree.

On curbside composting:

We currently burn a lot of compostable material in the downtown garbage burner.  This doesn’t make any sense.  We could be diverting this resource back into the soil, to build the soil fertility that will grow new crops. 

This is another strategy that was called out in the Climate Action Plan.  We have had a series of very successful pilot programs in different parts of our city, and they indicate that a certain number of people will participate in the composting program even without much community engagement by the City.  We have received a very informative report from a company called Foth that indicates that we can divert a large amount of organic waste from the garbage burner for a reasonable monthly fee to our utility ratepayers.  Other cities – San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, to name just a few – have created very successful organic composting collection systems that divert huge amounts of waste into reuse.  And by creating this system, it becomes more possible to address some of the single-use packaging and bags that account for so much of our waste stream.

I’m proud that my office, working with the City’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission, helped raise this issue.  I’m proud of the Mayor for including it in her budget.  I will be proud to vote for composting in December.

I believe that the people of Minneapolis agree.  I can’t count how many times I've heard from my constituents that they want the composting pilots expanded, that they want this service at their house.  At the Zero Waste forum earlier this year, many of my colleagues and I heard from more than a hundred residents about their desire for our city to move towards zero waste, with composting as the next clear step.  The people of Minneapolis understand that there are better things to do with our coffee grounds and potato peelings than burning them.  And I believe that a majority of my colleagues agree.

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Now, there are some things I’m open to changing.  I think we could continue to put capital dollars into public art funding, even though they have a large amount of unspent bonding capacity.  I think that we could start a conversation about how best to get the Public Housing Authority the resources they need, possibly through giving them their own bonding authority again.  I think that we could be clearer with our neighborhood organizations about what we’re doing with the funds from the consolidated TIF district when they exceed projections – and I have scheduled that conversation to occur in the Health, Environment and Community Engagement committee on November 17.  I think that we could put more into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.  I would support ways to achieve these goals if they didn't damage the above priorities.

There are also changes that others have suggested that I don’t personally support.  For example, I think that the funding increase for public safety is sufficient.  I really just don’t understand how any of my colleagues can argue that the budget “does nothing” meaningful to expand either the Police Department or the Fire Department.  Let’s just look at the numbers quoted by the Star Tribune.  The proposed budget raises the levy by $6.7 million.  The same proposal raises funding for the Police and Fire Departments by $6.6 million.  That’s not “nothing.”  That’s nearly everything.  That comes within $100,000 of spending the entire levy increase on public safety.
I believe that the levy increase is very reasonable.  Most households will see a reduction in the property tax bill, even with this increase, due to the growth of the overall tax base.
Though I would tweak some things, and though I wish we could have had a full and open conversation with our neighborhood groups about our plans for the consolidated TIF districts prior to this budget cycle, for the most part I am very, very supportive of the biggest items in the mayor's budget.  I may support some changes, but  I intend to work very hard to make certain that the relatively modest investments to support equity, protected bikeways and curbside composting are preserved.