John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Monday, March 30, 2009

Hearing for HF 2055

Tomorrow one of the Fish Creek bills gets it first committee hearing. The bill, HF 2055, will be heard most likely sometime between 9:30 and 10:00 AM by the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division. I've been told that it should take less than 10 minutes.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Help! Help! I'm being repressed!

Reading Erik's column on page 4 of the April city newsletter reminds me of a classic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fish Creek Bills Introduced

Last night at our regular council meeting we talked about progress in the legislature on funding for land acquisition in the Fish Creek corridor. This afternoon the city council (and other interested parties) received an e-mail from Senator Wiger, who wrote:

Hi Everyone,

I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed the conversation the City Council had about Fish Creek during its meeting last night. I was able to watch the show on TV after getting home.

As you know, Rep. Slawik, Rep. Lillie and I have been working on legislation to purchase land along Fish Creek so that it can be preserved for future generations. We have introduced two bills that request funding in the amount of $2.4 million to purchase the land. One of the bills (SF 1821/HF 2055) requests funding from the Parks and Trails fund, while the other bill (SF 1822/HF 2054) requests funding from the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Since we received some mixed feedback on which funding route to pursue, and since the proposal could potentially be funded through either route, we introduced both proposals in the hopes that one will be considered for funding.

I will be sure to keep you updated on the status of this legislation in the Senate.

Warm Regards,
Here are links to the status pages of the bills that Sen. Wiger mentions: SF 1821, HF 2055; SF 1822, HF 2054.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dedicated Parks Funding

Many residents identify Maplewood's parks, trails, and open spaces as key to our community's attractiveness. Besides their inherent benefits, a well-maintained system of these assets increases the appeal and value of property in our city as a whole.

Last August the city council held a joint workshop with the Parks & Recreation Commission. A major topic of that meeting was the challenge of funding our parks.

Changing Needs

Historically, as a growing suburb, Maplewood has relied upon the Park Availability Charge, or PAC, which is charged on each unit of new development in the city. Collection of this charge is authorized by Minnesota Statutes 462.358 Subdivisions 2b and 2c. As explained by a League of Minnesota Cities brief on the subject, the statutes authorizing park dedication charges like our PAC “are premised on the assumption that new development (and not existing taxpayers) ought to pay for the additional park and recreation facilities needed to accommodate the demands created by the new development.” The statute limits the use of the funds, which “may not be used for ongoing operation or maintenance.”

As Maplewood nears full development, there are fewer opportunities for new park and recreation facilities. However, the aging of our existing facilities means a growing need to fund their repair and replacement. In the future we can expect the need for funding to grow, when the parks and trails that we have been expanding in recent years reach the point in their life when they require repair or reconstruction. Thus the nature of our park funding needs is changing, and the trend will continue. Now and in the future the city council will be worrying less about acquiring land or building new park facilities, and more about replacing deteriorated playground equipment, sports fields, and trail segments.

This growing need must be set against the realities of the budget process each year. I believe many residents would support increased funding for our parks, trails, and open space; but as our city sets its short-term priorities, it is very easy to short-change our parks when their funding is part of the general tax levy. Unlike capital projects such as street improvements that can be assessed and bonded with relative ease, capital improvements to our parks and open spaces generally must be paid for from funds on hand.

I believe Maplewood needs to look for a dedicated funding source for the maintenance and repair/replacement needs of Maplewood parks, trails, and open space.

EFF as Potential Dedicated Funding

One option we can consider is to dedicate the Electric Franchise Fee as this funding source. I think there are several reasons the EFF may be appropriate.

The EFF is collected from every electric utility customer in the city. This includes entities that are exempt from property taxes (such as private and public schools, churches, and government facilities) but that do benefit from city parks, trails and open space. The EFF is thus an existing mechanism for collecting fees from a broad base of individuals and institutions that benefit directly or indirectly from our parks, trails and open space.

There several possible ways to dedicate this funding. It could be a whole or partial dedication of the current EFF, which is 50 cents per month on residential electric customers. The EFF could be increased, with the increase (with our without part of the current EFF) being dedicated to a park, trail, and open space maintenance fund.

From the standpoint of building community support, I think the EFF would make it easier for residents to see a direct relationship between what they pay and what they receive – for example, 25 cents per month on a residential household would equate to something over $90,000 per year that would go directly to needed capital improvements to our parks system.

Using the EFF has its downside. It has been controversial in the past. It can be seen as a regressive tax: unlike property taxes, it does not have any implicit relationship to the assets of the payer or their ability to pay. It is not tax deductible as property taxes are. I opposed an increase in the EFF three years ago, when it appeared to be proposed as a way to hold down property taxes on the most valuable homes in the city and shift the burden to renters and owners of less valuable houses. In that case, however, the money was going into general city operations (it was proposed to be used for energy purposes, but that umbrella covered things like the heating bill at the community center).

Of course, every funding mechanism has its drawbacks. For example, due to fiscal disparities contributions, in order to fund parks through property taxes we actually have to levy more taxes than would actually go to parks, in order to account for the program that redistributes a portion of our property tax receipts to neighboring communities.

Next Steps

I bought this proposal to the Parks & Recreation Commission as a Visitor Presentation on March 18th in an effort to move our discussion about parks, trails and open space funding forward. The City Council and Parks Commission have already identified the need for dedicated funding for our parks system; we need to move on to explore specific ideas of how to accomplish the goal.

If the parks commission is willing to explore this idea, my hope is that they will develop a policy recommendation for the city council. I am also hoping that discussion of this idea may bring forth additional ideas of practical funding mechanisms to help us assure a safe and healthy park system that will serve our residents today and in generations to come.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Erik's Bribes

Lately, Erik Hjelle and his pals have taken to referring to campaign contributions as "bribes." Never mind the courts that regard campaign donations as a form of constitutionally protected political expression. Apparently only people who have money of their own to spend on running for office should be allowed to do so. Erik & Co. also like to talk about how many of my campaign donors were outside of Maplewood. As I wrote back in 2007, I am proud of how well I did at fundraising, and I am pleased that I was supported by so many friends and family across the country who don't care particularly about Maplewood but just believe in me.

What's ironic about Erik's self-righteous chest thumping is that there is only one sitting member of the Maplewood City Council who has actually been fined for violating campaign finance laws. You guessed it: Erik Hjelle, who was found to have accepted campaign contributions ("bribes," I guess he would call them) over the legal limit, and to have illegally used corporate funds to pay campaign expenses, in 2005. Erik was caught up in campaign law violations again in 2007, when his "Maplewood Firefighters Association" (which was spending money to influence the election) was fined $1000 for false claims.

What are the odds that Erik will go three for three and find a way to run afoul of campaign laws again this year? Stay tuned...


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Rezoning Request

At the last meeting of the Planning Commission, on March 3rd, one agenda item was a request for rezoning a parcel in south Maplewood. A developer has applied for a change from R-1R (rural residential) to R-1S (small lot). Staff recommended against the zoning change, and the planning commission voted (unanimously, if memory serves) to recommend that the city council deny the request.

When the council considers this matter, what kind of decision will it be? How much discretion does the council have?

The answer is, whether or not to rezone a parcel is a legislative decision and a city council is given considerable latitude in deciding what to do. (In contrast, at issue in the CoPar development was a quasi-judicial matter of whether or not the developer's conditional use permit application could be denied on the basis of a zoning ordinance that, at the time, was in conflict with our comp plan.)

The League of Minnesota Cities publishes the Zoning Guide for Cities on its website. The guide explains (p. 32):
An application for a rezoning is a request for an amendment to the zoning ordinance. When reviewing applications for re-zoning, the court has ruled that the city continues to act in a legislative capacity, even though the re-zoning application may only relate to one specific parcel owned by one individual. The existing zoning ordinance is presumed to be constitutional, and an applicant is only entitled to a change if they can demonstrate that the existing zoning is unsupported by any rational basis related to the public health, safety and welfare.
In other words, unless there is no rational basis for the existing zoning, no one is entitled to a change of zoning. All else being equal, it's up to the council to decide what best serves the interests of the community, to rezone or not to rezone.

In this specific case, however, there is a second thing that we must keep in mind. The Zoning Guide for Cities (p. 40) states that a decision on a zoning question should be accompanied by findings of fact to support the decision, and, "If the city has followed a comprehensive planning process, the findings of fact should also indicate that the decision is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan."

The problem is, this requested rezoning is not consistent with our comp plan. R-1S zoning allows for lots as small as 7,500 square feet; the current comp plan guides this land with parcels no smaller than 10,000 square feet. The pending changes to the comp plan, which came out of a lengthy process of study and public involvement over the past three years, will enact even larger minimum sizes (0.5 to 1.5 units per net acre).

Minnesota Statute 473.865 Subd. 2 decrees, "A local governmental unit shall not adopt any official control or fiscal device which is in conflict with its comprehensive plan or which permits activity in conflict with metropolitan system plans." It appears to me that to do what the developer requests would violate state law, which tells us not to adopt any official control (such as this zoning map change) that conflicts with our comp plan.

Clearly the Planning Commission was right to recommend denial of this proposed zoning change.


Friday, March 06, 2009

Lawsuit Dismissed

We just got word that the lawsuit, Musgrave v. Nephew et al., was voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff under rule 41.01(a)(1). According to this section of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure, "an action may be dismissed by the plaintiff without order of court (1) by filing a notice of dismissal at any time before service by the adverse party of an answer or of a motion for summary judgment, whichever first occurs..." This suggests that our attorneys haven't even filed an answer to the original suit, which is a good thing in terms of minimizing the taxpayer dollars spent responding to this frivolous lawsuit.

It's perhaps inevitable that government will get sued now and then. I'd rather not see it happen at all, of course, but I'll take a suit that ends with the plaintiff's voluntary dismissal over the ones that result in large monetary settlements or court judgements any day.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Senate Transit Subcommittee in Maplewood

Tonight the Senate Transit Subcommittee is holding a community meeting in Maplewood, in our City Council chambers, to get input from the public on our state's transit budget. The meeting is scheduled to take place from 6:30 to 8:30 PM.


Contract Approved

After a bit of drama a week earlier, this past Monday the Maplewood City Council did vote to approve the contract hiring James Antonen as our new city manager. Mr. Antonen is probably en route as I type this, and we anticipate that he will be sitting in the manager's chair at this coming Monday's council meeting.

The Maplewood Review has a couple of articles up this week about how things unfolded: one about the meeting on Feb. 23 where a motion to approve the contract contingent upon acceptance of the final background check failed, and another "news flash" online story about the final approval after the completed background check was approved.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009


At last week's council meeting, Councilmember Erik Hjelle shared his personal philosophy of decision making.

In other words, in Erik's view, real men don't stop to consider the consequences before making their decisions.

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