John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Thursday, December 31, 2009


Last week's Maplewood Review included an article about urban chickens and Maplewood. I saw a discussion of the topic an an Environmental & Natural Resources Commission meeting earlier this year, and a resident recently brought up the topic in visitior presentations at a council meeting.

Do you have thoughts about whether residents should be allowed to raise chickens in Maplewood, and under what conditions? Drop me a line at my city e-mail and let me know what you think.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Survey Time

If you have time off for the holidays and are looking for something to do, why not fill out a web survey to help state leaders understand your views of various issues? Here are a couple that I've recently learned about.

The Water Resource Center of the University of Minnesota is conducting a web survey about water issues, to be used in creating the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework for the state legislature. It's a fairly quick and anonymous survey, with questions about what you think is important about water resources in the state (wildlife, recreation, drinking water?), what you see as the biggest threats, etc.

If you own a small business, there's also an online survey from the bipartisan Small Business Caucus of the Minnesota House of Representatives. This survey is only open until December 31, 2009.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Commission Openings

The City of Maplewood is now taking applications for the city's boards and commissions. According to the city website, there are four current vacancies — two on the Planning Commission, one on the Environmental & Natural Resources Commission, and one on the Housing & Redevelopment Authority.

These commissions play a vital role in advising the city council, and are a great way to get involved as a volunteer for your community. You can download an application from the city website and either mail it to city hall or drop it off at the front desk.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Your Capitol: What's Up?

Last month Senator Chuck Wiger interviewed me for his cable TV show, Your Capitol: What's Up? The interview airs for the first time tonight at 10:00 PM, and replays tomorrow at 6:00 AM and 11:00 AM, and then again on December 27th at 3:00 PM. All broadcasts are on Channel 15 in Maplewood and other cities served by the Ramsey-Washington Suburban Cable Commission.

A complete schedule of Sen. Wiger's December shows is available on his website.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Budget Article

This week's Maplewood Review includes an article about our special meeting held on December 7th, which included a public hearing on the proposed 2010 budget and votes on the final levy and the budget itself.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Streaming Video of City Meetings

At the November 23rd city council meeting, we approved the plan to put city meetings on the internet -- streaming live, and archived for viewing on demand. This service is being offered through the Ramsey-Washington Suburban Cable Commission to its members; the more cities that sign up, the bigger discount we will all see. This week's Maplewood Review includes an article about it, including the news that North Saint Paul has also taken action to sign up for the service.

I see video streaming as an important step in increasing the accessibility of local government and the accuracy of information available to residents. Not all of our residents have free time to attend a lot of city meetings, or even to watch them at the specific times they are broadcast or rebroadcast. This new service will allow anyone with access to the internet (if not at home, then at the public library) to go to the specific portion of a meeting that interests them, even if the meeting took place months in the past.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Has He Had His Shots?

In an e-mail addressed to the entire city staff as well as the city council, soon-to-be-former councilmember Erik Hjelle writes today:
I fully understand that this concept will shock most of you but I do not want a plague.
Obviously this is a typo concerning the plaques in Item I1 on Monday's agenda ("Presentation Of Plaques To Outgoing Mayor And Councilmember Hjelle From Ramsey County League Of Local Governments"), but a person could have fun speculating about what Erik's unconscious was trying to express through this parapraxis. Perhaps an apology for four years of metaphorical locusts?


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Breaking News (of Little Effect on Maplewood)

According to an e-mail from the League of Minnesota Cities, Governor Pawlenty in a letter to the league has "announced that he would not use unallotment to further reduce or delay the December local government aid (LGA) and market value homestead credit (MVHC) payments scheduled for cities and counties."

This is good news for Minnesota cities in general. However, it appears not to make a difference for Maplewood. The governor's decision to reduce LGA/MVHC by $64 million back in June, which this announcement does not undo, already took away all of our MVHC. Further reductions to December payments, that were expected as a response the increased state deficit announced last week, could not have come at Maplewood's expense because we were already at $0.

The governor is not rolling back the 2009 and 2010 cuts that were already determined earlier this year (which would increase the state's deficit even more) -- he's just decided not to cut even further for now. He makes no such guarantee for 2010 -- though again, since our 2010 payments are already at $0, it makes no difference to Maplewood. For some of our neighbors who get LGA or MVHC even after this summer's cuts, this is good news, but it won't put any money back in Maplewood's coffers, this year or next.

Nonetheless, Councilmember Erik Hjelle, showing off both his typically poor reading comprehension and his habitual disregard for the Open Meeting Law, dashed off an e-mail to the entire city council as soon as he (mis-)heard the news, saying he "cannot wait to see how you liberals spend this" and that we should "give the money BACK to the taxpayers." Rushing to judgement and insults based on his own misunderstanding is vintage Erik, something I'm sure we'll all miss in a few weeks when Jim Llanas replaces him on the council.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Pawlenty's Budget Policy: Anti-Jobs, Anti-Small Business

As the State of Minnesota faces more red ink, Governor Pawlenty has stated he will "strive to be more business and job friendly" while planning "to address the deficit through spending cuts alone."

The effect of his budget policy, however, has been to punish small businesses, especially the ones that are hanging on the edge during this recession. When Pawlenty's further shifting of the tax burden from state to local governments forces even more businesses to close their doors, the result will be more job losses, a longer economic downturn, and even more budget woes for the whole state in the future.

Here's a flowchart of cause and effect to explain what I mean:

A business pays income taxes based on profit. If times are lean, a corporation is not paying these taxes. In contrast, regardless of the health of a company, its property taxes are a fixed dollar amount. So Pawlenty's supposedly "pro-business" policies — refusing to raise taxes at the state level, and cutting payments to local government — have the effect of preserving the profits of the healthiest companies (those paying income taxes) at the expense of the small business at the margin (the ones who might only be breaking even or swallowing a loss this year).

If you're a fan of bigger, more consolidated businesses (who are happy to buy up the shells of their former competitors on the cheap) and less competition and diversity in the marketplace, maybe you see this as a good thing. Economic cataclysms do, after all, create incredible money-making opportunities for those in a position to take Baron Rothschild's advice and "buy when there's blood in the streets."

However, I think it's terrible policy for everyone in the long run. Already-profitable businesses can be more profitable if they have more customers — in the form of other surviving businesses with money to spend on operations and invest in growth, and consumers with jobs and income to spend.

The answer to the state's budget crisis is not to rely only on increases in personal and corporate income taxes, of course, but it needs to be part of the mix in a pragmatic strategy for recovery. Unfortunately, our governor appears unwilling to substitute a little political courage for his presidential ambitions.

As it stands, the governor's "pass the buck" tax policy consists of taking from those in need for the benefit of those who have plenty — whether we're talking about his cuts to medical assistance, or LGA/MVHC cuts that have the effect of shifting tax burdens from thriving (income tax-paying) companies to those that are struggling.

His policy is neither just nor sound for the health of Minnesota's economy.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Where Was the MFA?

One prominent player from the previous two city election cycles was notable for its absence from the campaign this year — the Maplewood Firefighters Association, Inc.

The MFA appeared in 2005, campaigning on behalf of candidates Hjelle, Cave, and Longrie, and got right down to the business of flouting the rules. During that election, Hjelle, a city employee as a pay-per-call firefighter, ran afoul of the city's personnel policies by using the Londin Lane fire station to put together a mailing from the MFA on behalf of himself, Cave, and Longrie. An independent investigation concluded that Hjelle had knowingly violated city policy against using city buildings for campaigning. Hjelle told the investigator that he had every right to use the fire station for his election campaign, because "It's not the city's fire station. It's my fire station. The City technically owns it, but it's my fire station and my fire truck.” The MFA was also entangled in one of the 2005 campaign practices complaints against Erik Hjelle. The Office of Administrative Hearings determined that the MFA had made illegal campaign contributions to Hjelle ($2,228.84 versus the $300 allowed by law).

In 2007, the MFA was active again, producing lawnsigns in support of Rebecca Cave. Once again the group prompted a campaign practices complaint, and the OAH determined that the MFA had knowingly and falsely implied the Maplewood Fire Department had endorsed Cave, then fined them $1000 for breaking the law.

What was interesting in 2007 was that, apart from an attorney, the only person who appeared before the Office of Administrative Hearings to speak on behalf of the MFA was Erik Hjelle -- though he was not, apparently, an officer or board member at that time. From listening to his testimony (42 megabyte MP3, about 46 minutes long, archived for posterity), I'm convinced that he personally torpedoed any chance they might have had at a successful defense. (As the judges put it: "He testified repeatedly that by using the phrase 'Maplewood Police and Fire Endorse Rebecca Cave,' he intended to communicate that Ms. Cave had the support of all Maplewood firefighters. Neither Hjelle nor the MFA have the authority to speak for the Department or the MPFA [the full-time firefighters' union], and the evidence is undisputed that neither of these organizations has agreed to endorse Ms. Cave.")

After two election cycles of active involvement, why was the MFA conspicuously absent in 2009? Was it a victim of the falling out between Hjelle's faction and the supporters of Longrie and Cave, as seen during and after the election? Was the MFA ever more than the "Erik Hjelle Political Action Committee" — just a means for Hjelle to claim falsely to speak for all firefighters as he pursued his own political agenda? Maybe in 2009, he realized that his public support was more likely to hurt than to help the candidates he favored. To the extent that Hjelle was visible in the campaign season, it was in launching attacks on Rossbach and Llanas, rather than openly campaigning for candidates as he had in the past.

In any case, if you search for the Maplewood Firefighters Association in the Minnesota Secretary of State's website today, you'll find that it says "Entity Status: Inactive." And if you're wondering about the trademark "Maplewood Fire" and its logo, the subject of contention in 2007, you'll see that it's now registered to the City of Maplewood, as it should be.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Longrie's Alternate Budget

On the agenda for Monday's special council meeting, after the staff's budget presentation and before public comment, is an alternate budget proposal from Mayor Longrie. The meeting packet is finalized and available online, yet the mayor's proposed budget is not in it.

My recollection from our budget discussion in September is that Mayor Longrie suggested that she had already worked out the budget cuts necessary to pay for the tax cut she proposed (in addition to the city's loss of state funds), but merely declined to share those with the rest of the council at that time. So I'm not sure why she has not yet provided that information, almost three months later.

Surely she does not expect the council to vote on her budget, without even giving us some time in advance of the meeting to review it? Or is the whole thing just another stunt, to create a campaign issue if, as she has threatened, she runs for office again in the future?

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Taxes Up But Revenues Down

Anyone who owns a home or other real estate in Minnesota probably has noticed that property taxes have skyrocketed in the past decade. Minnesota 2020 has just put out a paper analyzing the trend in more detail. Researcher Jeff Van Wychen looks at property taxes in real terms (adjusting for inflation) on a per capita basis. The numbers show what we've all felt in our wallets: property taxes have shot up in real terms since 2002, and homestead property taxes even moreso.

But here's a surprising fact that goes with it: "While the average Minnesota homestead property tax has increased by 30 percent from 2002 to 2009, per capita county, city, and township revenue has fallen." In other words, even while charging more in property taxes to their residents, local governments have had less money with which to pay for the services those residents need.

The reason is simple enough -- funding from the state has been slashed. (Funny how the mandates from the state, which require local governments to spend money on various things, have not vanished as well.) The paper concludes, "Since 2002, the rapid growth in property taxes in general and homestead property taxes in particular is primarily the result of state policies, not local spending decisions."

For years now, the state of Minnesota has patched up the holes in its budget with duct tape billed to local government. Our governor, with aspirations for higher office, clings to his campaign promise never to increase taxes, while forcing local governments to do just that time and again, even while cutting their operating budgets. As bad as this is, it has utterly failed to address the underlying structural issues of the state budget for the coming years. The state can't milk local government units forever -- as more cities, like Maplewood, no longer have any state money to be taken back. While they have any to lose, this will mean even bigger future cuts for the cities that do get any Local Government Aid/Market Value Homestead Credit.


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