John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Report on Trash Bills

This coming monday, one topic at the city council's workshop will be a discussion of the current open hauling system in Maplewood, including such things as whether the ordinance is followed and what it would cost the city to enforce the rules that haulers agreed to when the city decided not to organize back in 1996.

Included in the meeting packet is a report that I wrote, including tables summarizing the data I have gathered from the dozens of residents who have been so helpful as to share copies of their trash bills with me over the past few months.  You can download my report as a PDF by itself, or the entire workshop packet from the city website.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Trash Hauling Inflation

Now that the deadline for proposals is past, I wanted to dive back into some analysis of the trash hauling issue, in particular the economics (which our council has identified as our #1 goal in evaluating organized collection).

A frequent comment I've heard from people opposed to organized collection is the claim that even if there are immediate savings, future prices will increase if the government gets involved. Sometimes it's as though people imagine that prices don't increase under the current system. The pricing formula set out in our RFP does allow for annual price changes over the term of a contract, but those changes are tied to specific objective data -- the consumer price index, diesel fuel index, and the actual cost of tipping fees for trash disposal. In contrast, prices at the present time are set entirely at the discretion of the hauler, who may or may not link them in some way to objective economic data or actual costs in providing the service, or may cloak them in deceptive terms so as to throw off the scent of bargain-hunting consumers.

To illustrate how it works in the current system, let me refer you to a set of bills in my collection. One resident helpfully sent me not just their latest bill, but four bills, each from a different year (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011). This household has used the same hauler, and the same container size, so it gives us an apples-to-apples comparison across four years. This is a local hauler who seems to have relatively little pricing variation across their customer base. (In other words, this hauler's customers tend to pay the same amount for the same containers, unlike other haulers where two customers with the same container may pay wildly divergent prices. Example: This customer pays 155% more than this customer, with the same hauler and same container.)

Here is a table of the monthly prices charged to this customer across four years, excluding taxes:
Year Base Charge Fuel Surcharge Total Total Increase
2008 $9.55 $0 $9.55
2009 $10.55 $0.65 $11.20 17.28%
2010 $12.05 $0.85 $12.90 15.18%
2011 $12.55 $0.85 $13.40 3.88%

Perhaps it's coincidence, but I find it interesting that after Maplewood began seriously discussing organized collection in late 2010, the next year's percentage price increase was single-digit rather than double-digit.

To put these enormous price increases in context, consider what inflation has been like over these years in general terms and also specific to diesel fuel. Here is a table comparing those increases to the CPI and average diesel prices. (For CPI, I am using December-to-December comparisons for the period just ended; i.e., the 2011 number is the inflation figure for December 2010 over December 2009. For diesel, I am using the U.S. Energy Information Administration's annual average prices per gallon for on-highway diesel ultra-low sulfur diesel for the previous year.)
Year Hauler Price Increase Inflation (CPI) Diesel Price/Gallon Diesel Price Change
2008 n/a 4.10% 2.942
2009 17.28% 0.10% 3.814 29.64%
2010 15.18% 2.70% 2.473 -35.16%
2011 3.88% 1.50% 2.993 21.03%

Diesel prices rocketed up almost 30% across 2008, leading this hauler to impose a fuel surcharge of 65 cents per month in 2009. But the following year, when diesel prices dropped by 35% -- and in fact averaged about 16% less than before the fuel surcharge was imposed -- the trash hauler did not reduce or eliminate the fuel surcharge. On the contrary, they increased it by 20 cents a month, or nearly 31%! Last year diesel prices rebounded (now being slightly higher than they were before the fuel surcharge was imposed), and the fuel surcharge was held flat.

We can only conclude that the fuel surcharge is arbitrary, and simply a way of cloaking a major price increase, since it only increases and does not appear to have an actual correlation to fuel prices.

Looking at general inflation, the difference between the hauler price increases and the consumer price index is breathtaking -- they've been increasing prices by 2.6 to 173 times the rate of inflation each year. If the total price had increased only in line with inflation, the customer would be paying $9.96 today, not $13.40.

A significant economic benefit of organized collection, besides likely immediate savings, is protection from large, arbitrary future price increases, which haulers have a history of applying under the open hauling system we have today.

And, needless to say, it's obvious why haulers and their trade association would be willing to put a lot of money and effort into stopping organized collection and preserving their ability to jack up prices and their own profits with impunity.


Friday, August 19, 2011


Building on the momentum of Wednesday's recount, which only slightly expanded the margin by which she came in last place in the primary, Elizabeth Sletten has announced that she will be running a write-in campaign for city council in the November general election.

This will add an interesting dynamic to the ongoing race.  It's tough work to mount a write-in campaign under any circumstances, and made tougher by the format of a an election for two at-large seats where each voter can choose to cast one vote or two.  To have a shot at overtaking three other candidates, let alone all four, Sletten will need to convince her supporters not only to write in her name, but to bullet vote -- to vote only for her, and thus not increase the vote tallies of any of the candidates printed on the ballot.  Ms. Sletten is nothing if not tenacious, and I am sure she'll be working hard to make that argument to the voters in the coming weeks.

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Taste of Maplewood 2011 - Friday/Saturday

This weekend is the Taste of Maplewood in Goodrich Park.  It begins at 4 PM this afternoon, through 10 PM tonight; and then again tomorrow from 12 PM to 10 PM.  Admission is free and it promises to be fun for the whole family!  For more information, visit the city web page with all the details.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Liars to the Editor

I imagine it's true in any political setting, but in Maplewood each election seems to bring a fresh crop of false rumors and conspiracy theories promoted by the usual suspects.  Sooner or later, some gullible soul is lured into submitting a letter to the editor promoting some of this fiction as fact.

So it is this week with a letter to the editor of the Maplewood Review.  Kim Points became aware that I had returned from the LMC conference in Rochester this past June in order to attend the local DFL endorsing convention.  She claims that I missed half the conference.  In case you don't think that would be a big deal, even if it were true, she clutches her pearls and exclaims that "[half] that [conference] registration fee, $122.50 could feed a small family for a week."

While I did return for the endorsement, apparently it didn't occur to Ms. Points that I would be able to drive back to Rochester the same evening.  In case it was unclear, the League of Minnesota Cities held its conference in Rochester, Minnesota -- not, say, Rochester, New York.  And if you've never driven there, it may be worth noting that it can take longer to get from Maplewood to some Metro destinations, depending on traffic, than it does to drive to Rochester.  All I missed of the conference was part of the cash bar & appetizers cocktail hour.

I'm sure this is only the beginning of the nonsense we'll see as the campaign unfolds.  Keep your eyes peeled, your skepticism sharpened, and let me know what crazy stories you hear.  And for heaven's sake, people, why not make some tiny effort to fact check before you put your name in the paper attached to a lie?


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Recount Results

This morning was the recount to confirm last place and second-to-last place in last week's primary election, and thus who would be on the final ballot in November.  Four Maplewood election judges and two observers from the Ramsey County elections department went through all the ballots by hand, sorting them into four piles (those with Elizabeth Sletten votes, those with Rebecca Cave votes, those with both Sletten and Cave votes, and those with neither) and counting the Sletten and Cave votes (the others were ignored).  When all the ballots were recounted, the final tally increased Cave's total by two votes, so she beat Sletten by nine instead of seven and is confirmed to be on the general election ballot.

News blurbs are already up on both the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune websites.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Last Call for Trash Bills

For the last few months, I've been gathering trash bills from Maplewood residents, to get a good picture of what our homeowners are actually paying for their trash service today.  So far I've gotten copies of bills from more than fifty different households (and even a couple of townhome associations), with examples from seven of the eight licensed haulers that serve Maplewood at large.

In the next few days, I need to put together a report for the city council summarizing and analyzing the information I've gathered, for the upcoming council workshop where we'll be taking a look at the city's current trash hauling system and how it works.

If you have not yet sent me a sample recent bill from your household, I still encourage you to get me one and further enlarge the data set.  Thanks for your help!

Special Plea: I'm especially interested in seeing any examples of bills from Walters, since the only ones of theirs I've seen thus far were actually Roseville residents.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Reader Comment on Primaries & Recounts

A writer who wishes only to be identified as “Concerned South-Side Resident” asked me about the cost of holding the primary and now a recount, and commented:

Seriously, 6 or 8 people hanging out down at Fire Station 4 all day just so we could eliminate one very marginal candidate is not my idea of fiscal responsibility on the part of said candidate. If she truly cared about the city, she would’ve faced the writing that is on the wall and, like Wykoff, withdrawn until she had a better grasp on getting elected.
My understanding from a passing conversation with the city clerk is that the primary cost the city something around $38,000; I don't know what the recount will cost, but it will probably not be a great deal, since there just aren't that many votes to be counted over again.  But the point remains -- we apparently spent about $21 per ballot cast.  And for all we know at this point, the last-place candidate may decide the margin was so close for the 4th spot that she should mount a write-in campaign for the November election anyway.

In the past our council has had some discussion about whether it makes sense to move to even-year elections.  There's some merit to that idea, but perhaps we should consider other possibilities that have been put forward in the past, such as having a higher threshold of candidates to require a primary in future elections.  I'm guessing that, not having a city charter, ranked choice voting like Saint Paul is using this year is not an alternative available to us, but that's only a guess.

In any case, we should have a conversation about this, especially in these tough economic times when we're looking at every possible way to stretch the taxpayers' dollars.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Recount Next Week

Yesterday, the City Council met in a special meeting as the canvassing board to certify the results of the August 9th primary.  Losing candidate Elizabeth Sletten was present, and immediately after the meeting adjourned submitted a request for a recount in writing to the city clerk.  Due to the close margin between her and the 4th place finisher (just seven votes between them), she is entitled to a recount at taxpayer expense if she requests it.

The recount will be conducted this coming Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 9:00 a.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall.  It is open to the public.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Do You Hear a Dog Whistle?

Sometimes when you read or hear a candidate on the campaign trail, you sort of tune it out or gloss over it because it seems to ramble and not make any sense at certain points. It's easy to chalk it up to poor writing skills, especially in a local race. But sometimes what's happening is that a candidate is trying to send a message to a narrow slice of the audience, without alienating the rest. Of course, if you're not the target audience, it may be hard to discern the message.

I found a couple of likely examples of this in Bob Cardinal's answers to the SPACC questionnaire.

For example, he wrote, "The liberal agenda that all council members embrace is weak at best. The administration seems to put energy in to issues that should be left to the state of Minnesota to address, and continues to fabricate problems of questionable value." What "liberal agenda" issue has our city council addressed that "should be left to the state of Minnesota" (perhaps through a constitutional amendment on next year's ballot)?

This may be a more blatant example:

The city council has been issued a call of alarm for a stated expansion of the Police Department facilities. We need to tell the truth about what is coming out of Maplewood and what is coming in to Maplewood. This may help check the demand of expansion of police services.

Whatever "truth" Mr. Cardinal thinks needs to be told, he is apparently not yet ready to speak it clearly himself.  What (or who) exactly needs to be kept out of Maplewood, so that we could reduce the size of our police force and not face our current overcrowding issue in the police station?

I have to admit I'm still puzzled by the repeated comments about mimicking St. Paul. Maybe it's some kind of reference to the kind of people who should be kept out in order to maintain Maplewood's "identity"?

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Detailed Election Results

I've uploaded the spreadsheet of election results to Google Docs.  It includes results on a precinct-by-precinct basis, including the numbers of voters voting (1,820 city-wide) and the turnout (9% of registered voters cast ballots in this race).

The Ramsey County-reported percentages were on the basis of the number of votes cast, which could be one or two on any given ballot.  Here are the results expressed as a percentage of ballots that included a vote for each candidate:

1. John Nephew, 932 votes = 51.3%
2. Marv Koppen, 901 votes = 49.5%
3. Bob Cardinal, 806 votes = 44.3%
4. Rebecca Cave, 470 votes = 25.8%
5. Elizabeth Sletten, 463 votes = 25.4%

1,820 voters could have cast up to 3,640 votes; so the actual number of 3,572 votes cast tells us that 68 voters chose to vote for only a single candidate rather than two.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

SPACC Civic Engagement Guide

Yesterday the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce issued a press release announcing their Civic Engagement Guide.  Quoting the release,

The guide includes profile information, links to websites and social media, and the candidates' thoughts on a number of issues important to the business community. The information comes directly from each candidate and will help voters know more about the people who want to represent them. Candidates for city council were asked to complete a profile, questionnaire, as well as provide links and other information. Candidate answers posted on the website were not edited in any way by Chamber staff.
Maplewood candidates who have submitted information for the Guide are myself, Bob Cardinal, and (though she didn't make it through the primary) Elizabeth Sletten.

I may share some thoughts of my own about candidate responses in a future entry, but take a look yourself and see what you think.


A Note of Thanks After the Primary

After a day of post-election recuperation, I wanted to post a note of thanks to a bunch of people who made my first-place finish possible, with apologies of course to the folks I'll afterwards remember that I should have mentioned.

First of all, my wife, Michelle, who helped distributed literature, and edited and designed the graphics of the literature as well; and my daughters, Emma and Sophie, who did their best to help with door-knocking and lit-dropping, given the limitations of being not quite two years old.  Thanks to everyone who met us at the door with a welcoming smile, or came up to me in the store or on the street with words of encouragement.

More people knocked on doors and dropped lit on my behalf before the primary: Marie, Luke, Jim, Char, Gene, Peter, Will, Mary, Stephan, Robert, Ginny, Roxanne, Nora, Sean, and of course my Dad -- and I know that some of you guys brought along some other folks to help on your routes, so please thank them on my behalf as well.  And thanks, Mom, for watching the twins while we were door-knocking.  Thanks to Christeen, Lyn, Michelle and Jess for the phone calls made on my behalf.

Special thanks to Bob for doing so much of the initial lawn-sign installation, helping put signs in new locations as they're requested, and replacing the ones that vanish mysteriously a day before the election.  Thank you for everyone hosting a lawn sign, especially given how long the election season is now with the earlier primary season.

Thanks to the 43 generous donors who have contributed nearly $4,000 to my re-election campaign fund this year to date, to the dozens of folks who have permitted me to list them as supporters, and to the Maplewood DFL and the IBEW for their endorsements.

Finally, thank you to all 932 voters who made time to vote in the middle of the summer, and made me one of their choices.  I'm humbled by your support, and the support of all these amazing people without whom I certainly could not succeed.

Three months more of campaigning lie ahead, but knowing these folks and more have my back, I'm energized to hit the campaign trail with confidence and enthusiasm.


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A First Glance at Primary Results

Unofficial results on the Ramsey County Elections web page show the vote totals in today's primary as follows:

1. John Nephew, 932 votes, 26.09% of votes cast
2. Marv Koppen, 901 votes, 25.22% of votes cast
3. Bob Cardinal, 806 votes, 22.56% of votes cast
4. Rebecca Cave, 470 votes, 13.16% of votes cast
5. Elizabeth Sletten, 463 votes, 12.96% of votes cast

Keep in mind that each ballot could have up to two votes on it, but at this point I don't know how many ballots were actually cast.


Monday, August 08, 2011

Primary Election Tomorrow!

Tomorrow is Primary Election Day.  Four of the five candidates will advance to the November general election ballot.  The polls will be open from 7 AM to 8 PM.  You can find or confirm your polling location by using the online Ramsey County Precinct Finder.

If you won't be able to vote tomorrow, remember that in-person absentee voting is available until 5 PM today at Maplewood City Hall, 1830 County Road B East.

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

SMHS CUP in the Review

The South Metro Human Services facility going into the former Ethan Allen building is the topic of an article in this week's Maplewood Review.  This facility's conditional use permit was approved at our last city council meeting.

For additional background, see the entry I wrote in this blog ahead of the meeting, discussing the federal and state legal issues around the approval.

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Friday, August 05, 2011

Town Hall Meeting This Weekend

The quarterly town hall/citizens' forum meeting is coming up this weekend -- Saturday, August 6th, in the Maplewood Room at City Hall starting at 10 AM.  Mayor Rossbach and Councilmember Juenemann are hosting, and the formal topic is the police department space needs study.  There's usually a chance for open-ended Q&A as well.

You can get more details on the city website.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

Memory Lane: When Sletten Sought DFL Endorsement

I heard through the local political grapevine that a local unit of the Republican Party decided to endorse in this year's city council race.  That's not surprising or inappropriate; after all, the DFL has endorsed me and Marv Koppen.  A race being "non-partisan" doesn't mean political parties can't be involved, only that party affiliation or endorsement doesn't appear on the ballot.

But I was a little surprised to hear that Elizabeth Sletten received GOP endorsement, given her history of seeking of support from the DFL.  As a city council candidate in 2009, she asked for a DFL resolution of support; and in last year's special election she sought Democratic endorsement.  When the candidates were asked about their past support of DFL candidates and the party, Ms. Sletten described her pride in voting for President Obama.  In her own words recorded June 15, 2010:

Perhaps she had a major change of political heart over the past year.  But a person has to wonder if she was just saying what she thought the audience wanted to hear when she was asking for their votes -- either then or now.

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Monday, August 01, 2011

LTE: "Thoughtfully considered"

I was pleased to see another letter to the editor in the Review, this one from Gene Mammenga.  Thanks for the kind words, Gene!

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