Police/fire station update

The police/fire facility project is moving very quickly now.  Here’s a quick update:

First, check out the project webpage for current information.  This page includes a schedule of upcoming and past meetings of the Council, Steering Committee (the larger team of community members, the Mayor, Councilmembers Jon Denison and Erica Zweifel, KKE architects, and city staff), the Design Team (smaller, technical body with police/fire chiefs, city administrator, KKE, and Councilperson Denison) as well as links to agendas,  information packets, minutes, etc.   The website also includes links to KYMN’s video of Council meetings, documents, and much much more.  If you have a question, start here.

Next week, the Steering Committee meets at 3 pm (it’s a public meeting in the Council Chambers, so you can and should attend).  The Council will be told of the Steering Committee’s site selection recommendation only after that meeting and we will be acting on that recommendation that evening at our regular meeting.

Why is this project on a whiplash fast timeline?   In addition to wanting to move quickly simply to move the project along or to capture lower construction costs (the bids for the 4th Street Reconstruction project came in almost $700,000 lower than estimated, for example), the driving force is making decisions in advance of deadlines required by our financing choices.   If we decide to issue general obligation bonds which require a referendum, then the goal is to be able to put the question(s) on the November election ballot – not much time for public education, publishing ballot questions, and having voters vote.  If we decide to issue capital improvement bonds which do not require a referendum (but subject to reverse referendum), we must still hold a public hearing and vote to approve CIP bonds by a 3/5 majority of the Council.

Update: Materials for Tuesday: Here are the Budget Analysis and Site Diagrams the steering committee will consider on Tuesday afternoon.  The committee will make a recommendation based on their Tuesday discussion of these documents at the Council meeting that evening.

Police/fire facilities update – updated

The City Council has taken another step toward new police and fire facilities by giving staff the OK to negotiate a contract with KKE Architects.  KKE has much experience with police and fire facilities, as well as sustainable design (and now would be the time to draft a sustainable building policy for municipal buildings).

The Council also had a “Review of Preliminary Sites for Safety Center” on the agenda this past week.   We took no action, but rather acknowledged the staff’s assembling a list of potential sites for a police station – earlier possible sites were based on the assumption that we would be building a combined fire/police facility – and directed staff to come up with a short list after looking at the possible sites for access and other issues.  And now, coming up on Tuesday, we have a short list (it’s item 12 in that chunk of material) of sites to pass along to KKE.  An advisory group with 2 or 3 Council members, staff, representatives from stakeholder groups (rural fire, colleges, Dundas) and citizens will be formed as part of the public process.

And, in Joel Walinski’s Friday Memo, May 11 is the tentative date for discussion of the funding mechanism for police/fire and library – the referendum or no referendum question.

There are many questions flapping around this issue, but I’m waiting for some analysis by KKE.because I need some fresh perspective on these projects.

Update: See the Council packet for April 20 for the short list of sites, which were eliminated and why.  Tomorrow, the Council will meet with KKE to discuss our goals for the project as we move forward on site selection.

February recap

Not much blogging has happened in February.  None, actually.   Not many Council meetings, either.  We only had 2 meetings in February, so there could have been additional time for blogging if I hadn’t been out skiing so much.

There is a small swarm of issues buzzing around which were discussed in February and are continuing to circle.  In the swarm:  Major facilities (Police, Fire, Library) and their financing, annexation, land development code, city finances, Council goals.

What I’ve learned so far

2009 is almost over and so is my first year in office.    I’ve long thought that education is the process of refining what I don’t know.   After a year, I’ve learned a great deal about how little I know about city government.

I started 2009 with an experienced spectator’s knowledge of how city government operates and some experience with the land use planning side of things from my days on the Planning Commission (and a thick – even armored – skin from that time, too).    I had a good textbook understanding of the organizational flow chart showing the roles and responsibilities of staff, fellow Council members,  and boards/commissions.

At the end of 2009, I can report that a formal knowledge of city government is not very helpful and understanding the issues, while useful, isn’t nearly enough to get the job done.    Rather, I’m just beginning to develop a more strategic approach to that organizational chart along with a plan for shuttle diplomacy to advance issues.

A few targeted comments:

Roles & responsibilities: City staff have not taken over the city nor are they pushing a particular agenda.   On one hand, the staff face the challenge of trying to operate where there are 7 elected officials who rarely speak clear, declarative sentences announcing city policy in sufficient detail to address all the issues the staff must manage during the course of the work week.    Unless or until the Council can speak with a unified and clear voice, the staff must use their discretion.   Don’t blame the staff; talk to the Council.

On the other hand, the Council relies heavily on the staff to provide information to make our decisions.   This is where staff power and influence is most obvious.  If the Council only receives a few pixels of the big picture, we are not likely to understand the problem or make good choices for the long term health of the community.   I struggle much more with this side of the picture, especially with issues like the land development code (where I know that I’m not getting all the relevant information) and the Safety Center (where I strongly suspect I don’t know what I need to know).    Council members aren’t experts; we don’t always know when we need additional information and when we can accept the staff report as sufficient.    I still believe you, the public, should be directing your disapproval to the Council for failing to do appropriate due diligence and failing to provide sufficient direction to staff rather than whining about the performance or intentions of staff.

Your role & responsibility as a citizens.  Vote.  Be informed and engaged.  Stay in touch.  When you know more about an issue than we do, share your expertise with the Council so we can ask better questions and give staff better direction.   When you have a question about proposed Council action, ask early (and often).  If you have a specific and verifiable complaint about city staff, tell the Council.     We do need constructive criticism.  I welcome suggestions for doing things better.  I want to know about specific problems.   General griping, especially after the fact, is not helpful.

Public relations, information flow, and the open meeting law. I have a new respect and new loathing for the Open Meeting law after a year in office.  The Council could do more and do it faster if we could just  sit down as a group and in smaller groups behind closed doors and wrestle with issues.    Or have a little discussion via e-mail before the meeting to agree on meeting strategy and discussion points.    We could agree on our message before we broadcast it.     So, we could have efficiency, clarity and unity at the expense of transparency, accountability and participation.

But, since we do deliberate and decide in public, the process is going to be political (and arguably less candid) and messy.    I read the Northfield News with some trepidation because it sometimes seems that only the least relevant but most incendiary comments are quoted while the “real” issues aren’t explained.   But how should the newspaper sum up hours of disorderly discussion?  Clearly, the News is not enough.   You can watch the Council on KYMN (streaming live) or NTV, but the Council needs to find better ways to inform you of what we’re planning to do (with enough advance notice so your participation and input can be meaningful) as well as what we have done.    The challenges: who will do it, when will it be done, and what would be sufficient?

My dream (and I do dream about city government at night) is that the Council and staff will make progress in 2010 toward creating a city culture of sharing information rather than controlling it.    Happy New Year.

CIP discussion: Library expansion

Andrew Carnegie

Last week’s worksession was all about the Safety Center; this week it’s the other Big Project: the Library expansion.

Northfield’s Public Library is a Carnegie Library, one of more than 2,000 libraries funded by one of my favorite robber barons, Andrew Carnegie.   The Carnegie Corporation provided a $10,000 grant back in 1908 to build Northfield’s library.  Almost all Carnegie libraries were built using  “The Carnegie Formula.”  A town needed to provide matching funds plus demonstrate the need for the library, furnish the land for the building, provide 10% of the construction cost for annual operating costs, and provide free service.

The Carnegie Foundation made a wonderful investment in Northfield more than 100 years ago; now Northfield has the opportunity to invest again by funding expansion of our Carnegie Library.

The Carnegie Formula is still relevant, too.

  • Carnegie’s philanthropy leveraged local investment to build libraries and fund their operation.  This time, the process works the other way – by investing public money – your tax dollars – the City will work to leverage additional private contributions – charitable donations, grants, etc. to make this project work.
  • Demonstrated need:  The Library Board has undertaken extensive long range planning and documented their facilities needs; these documents are available here.
  • Building site: Public input showed that the overwhelming preference was to expand on the current site downtown.
  • Operating funds: Current estimates of the expansion cost are around $10 million; the proposed library budget for 2010 is about $1 million – the relationship still seems to hold.
  • Free service:  The Library serves us all without prejudice by providing access to information – print, on-line, DVDs, Bookmobile, live programming – free of charge.   The return on our investment may not be as easily quantifiable as dollars and sense, but I believe the Library builds community in broad, deep and significant ways.   For but one example, check out Art Rolnick on early literacy and economic development.

OK, obviously I think the Library does good work, is a good investment,  and is a good deal.  What’s this mean for including a library expansion in the city’s capital improvement program?

1. Northfield has deferred investment in facilities and we are now faced with a Safety Center and Library which lack storage space, space for services and equipment, modern technology, meeting and training space, work space, easy access and egress, and parking.  Both are too small for the current size of the community and the facilities will soon impact the ability to deliver services.
2. The Library and the Safety Center both help the City provide vital city services. The physical condition of the current Safety Center pushes it to the top of the priority list, but both public libraries and public safety are both crucial.   When your house is burning you need a firefighter and not a book about the Great Chicago Fire.  On the other hand, when you need to find a job, learn who to vote for, help your children learn, and many other questions, you need the Library.

3. The City Council must provide clear, committed leadership for major capital improvements and our 2010-2014 CIP should include both the Safety Center and the Public Library as equally important facilities which are scheduled in a reasonable and timely sequence.  Looking ahead, the community deserves to know how to budget for 1) a new Safety Center (one or two buildings), 2) an expanded library, and 3) a renewed school operating levy in 2013 (because we do think about the other entities which impose tax burdens).

4. Clear direction for action will enable the Council and staff to take the next steps of planning for these facilities, help make seeking grants and private donations more effective  (see the Carnegie Formula above), and help the community understand City plans and their effects.

5. Other questions:

  • Referendum? I believe both these projects are needed;  I would like to see a referendum on both or neither, rather than playing them off each other.
  • Can we afford anything (now)? I’ve been accused of not getting it by David Ludescher over on Locally Grown.   Despite my positive statements about both the Safety Center and the Library above, I think about the dollar impact on individuals and on businesses of Council decisions, not just the big ticket items.   The City is in a lousy place right now.  We’ve overbuilt in the residential area putting the tax burden on too few commercial/industrial taxpayers (and these properties pay higher rates while using fewer services).  We’ve deferred maintenance and capital spending so now we must improve facilities or they will fail.  The governor has balanced his budget by cutting ours; we’ve cut back on staff and services and may cut more.   Because I believe waiting will only raise the price – both because construction costs and interest rates will rise and because other capital needs are on the horizon, I am in favor of moving ahead now.



Chamber forum

Although other news sites said the Council “took some heat” and “mixed it up” at the Chamber of Commerce Wednesday morning, I’d rate the event as “very mild.”    No screaming, throwing, insulting, finger-pointing or other bad behavior took place, just a few tough questions (too few questions, if you ask me).   I’d boil down the concerns to 2 very legitimate concerns:

1. Money: The business community has been cutting budgets and jobs to try to survive in the down economy; tough choices are required.  The City, meanwhile, is raising its tax levy and thinking about building a new Safety Center and expanding the Library.    Mayor Rossing expressed her concern and frustration that the City realizes tax decisions weigh more heavily on commercial/industrial property owners due to a higher tax class rate and the added burden of a state property tax which residential property owners do not pay.   She’s right, of course, but this still doesn’t address the Chamber’s point that the City needs to cut costs and postpone spending because the money just isn’t there.

I’ll admit I’m struggling here, especially about our proposed capital projects.

On one hand, the City has put off capital improvements in the past so that we now find ourselves with several aging, cramped facilities which need repair or replacement.   We do not want the Safety Center, Library, City Hall, etc. to reach the point we reached with the outdoor pool which after years of patching (and thus years of knowing it was not sustainable)  simply failed and leaked thousands of gallons of water daily.   However, we also don’t want to make a decision like the outdoor pool replacement where a nice amenity, but not even close to an essential service  somehow took top priority and happened without consideration of other needs (and without a referendum).

On the other hand, the Chamber members are right, we don’t HAVE any money.  Can property owners bear the additional tax burden to BORROW the money?   As a homeowner, I don’t like to pay higher taxes, but I can.   Can our business properties afford these projects or will a new Safety Center kill off business?  If we waited two years and the economy recovered somewhat, would that be better? What other choices are there?

2. Development in Northfield: Why does it take so long and seem so difficult to get commercial projects reviewed, permitted and built in Northfield?  Certainly this question lurks as we struggle with our land development code, but those regulations – even if fabulous – won’t solve the problem.   And this complaint is not at all new – I’d love to hear from business people who’ve worked with Northfield and with other cities so they can help us understand what we’re not getting right.   I’d like to see the Council make efficient, predictable development review a very high priority and communicate this to the staff.  Look for more discussion of this topic as the land development code moves along – it’s a good time to raise this issue and make some progress.

Monday’s agenda and beyond

To infinity…and beyond! Alas, my horizon is much more limited; I’m only looking out to December 2009 with a few glimmers from 2010.

What is not on tomorrow’s agenda, but will be soon:

November 2: Council will act on the city attorney recommendations which have been generating much comment (but about which I shall have no comment until the November 2 meeting)

December: Budget and CIP decisions will have to be made.   The much discussed streetlight utility is not in the 2010 budget; if the Council decides to create the utility that would be a 2011 innovation.

What is on tomorrow’s agenda:

Consent agenda: since this part of the agenda has been under scrutiny lately, I’ll say that I don’t think anything on tomorrow’s consent agenda, shouldn’t be.   Disbursements, approve charitable gambling, award bids for the Riverside Trail connection (this might spark some comment out there, but I think the relevant policy decisions have been made already even if the total cost and route of this trail segment have caused concern), approve a proclamation for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and purchase police vehicles.

Regular agenda: Only 2 items.  One is a motion authorizing the City Administrator to execute a “letter of intent” between the City and Jefferson Square townhomes’ developer which contemplates providing tax increment financing to Jefferson Square to support their applications to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency for tax credits.   Jefferson Square has also received approval from the city recently for changes to their Planned Unit Development to allow construction of a clubhouse/community space for the townhomes; renovation to the homes is also part of that project.   This is one of those leverage situations – The City’s contribution helps Jefferson Square leverage additional state support to help keep this townhome development as affordable housing (as it has been since 1980) and also continue to improve and upgrade the property.  It’s a good deal.

The other item establishes 3 options in priority order in connection with the purchase of the MnDOT owned property at the corner of 2nd Street and Highway 3 – part of The Crossings project.  Priority 1 is to purchase the property at a price based on a value that splits the difference between MnDOT’s appraisal of $208,000 (which does not account for the contamination of the soil) and the City’s $54,000 appraisal or $131,000.  This doesn’t sound like a great deal, but it may be the best bet.   Other options would either involve “binding mediation” (I know what binding arbitration is, but I’m not sure about binding mediation) which has both time and money costs associated with it; the other option (the 3rd and lowest priority) would be to test the market and offer the property for sale on the open market which has time, uncertainty and probably some money costs.   Should certainty and expedience trump price fairness?

Then there’s the worksession: More budget presentations: HR, Community Development and the Insurance Fund.  And item 2. “CIP Discussion” which is probably code for “Safety Center again.”

Safety Center, again

Before the Council asks you to pay for a new Safety Center, it seems only fair to let you know what you’ll be buying.  Trouble is, I don’t know.

Here are the options that have been discussed or mentioned:

Option 1: the Safety Center Task Force recommendation of June 22 is to build a new Safety Center of 47,500 square feet housing both the police and fire departments.  The Task Force further recommended two sites, both south of the current Safety Center along Highway 3 and “strongly encourage[d]” the Council to study the flood protection needed for the current site (presented to the Council @ the 8/31 work session) and “explore ideas” for reuse.

Option 2: the Minority Opinion from Task Force member Ray Cox (and a discussion over on Locally Grown about this)    Ignoring the problematic way in which Mr Cox chose to get his opinion inserted into the discussion, he recommended either reusing the current safety center for police only and building anew fire station (if financial and engineering data bear out his belief that this would be the lowest cost option) or

Option 2a: also from the Minority Report if the engineering and financial data don’t support number 2, to build separate police and fire stations on a new site.  Separating the two facilities would allow the city to better account for the fire costs for the rural fire association and allow each facility to expand to meet its own needs independently.  The City has been urged to consider minority opinion by both the Chamber of Commerce and NDDC.

Option 3: Leave the fire station at the current location and build a new police station.  The current site is centrally located which is more important for fire response time.  I’ve only heard rumors about this one.

Mayor Rossing asked at our last work session what other information we needed to be able to include the project in the CIP.  I need to know what project we are committing to build – which means the Council must pass a resolution indicating our choice. In order to get to that decision, I need to see cost comparisons and I need to know where proposed numbers come from.  There are quite a lot of numbers to think about (in no particular order):

  • Land costs are not included in price estimates – what are estimated land costs?
  • What standard was used for space recommendations?  I don’t need minutiae, I just want to know the source of the space and cost per square foot numbers and they are not pulled from the air.  Call me an information paranoid – I check footnotes and read cross-references because I fear someone may be trying to mislead me at any moment (or, another way, from the Moscow Rules: Assume nothing).
  • What costs can be anticipated for reuse of the existing site for a purpose other than public safety?
  • What other possible funding sources are there?  We’ve noted contributions from the rural fire association and the college – what kind of $$’s are we talking about?  Does our choice of location/combination have any bearing on these?  I’ve heard there are possible state sources…really?  I don’t generally support chasing grants unless there’s it’s for one of those ” shovel-ready” projects (which this one isn’t, yet)  – any possibilities here?

More work – Capital improvement discussion starts

Northfield’s finance director, Kathleen McBride, deserves a lot of credit for dragging the Council toward a capital improvement planning process where projects are assessed rationally, scheduled sensibly, and funding sources are identified…instead of listing possible projects with largely fictional “placeholder” dollar amounts and hoping for the best.  The 2010-2014 CIP discussion begins Monday at the Council worksession.

By now, Northfield folks should know that the 1st big ticket item is the Safety Center. See the official city information here, Northfield News here (the most recent story), Locally Grown here.   The draft CIP numbers for the project are $1,020,000 in 2010 and $9,180,000 in 2011 for design and construction (exclusive of land acquisition) of a new joint police/fire Safety Center as per the Task Force recommendation.  In the alternative, $3,200,000 is included for renovation if a new facility is not constructed.    This is one of those molar-grinding sort of issues.  On one hand, public safety is important – life and death important sometimes – so I would like to make the choice which leads to the most effective functioning of our police and fire departments (and also cost effective functioning).  On the other hand, the Council has been bombarded with numbers, opinions, and paper but I can’t tell where the numbers come from (and they are disputed by various people), can’t sort out the opinions (because I’m no expert on public safety or construction costs) and usually can’t find the paper I might need because there is so much of it.

Beyond the question of what should be built and where, the Council also needs to decide whether to put this issue to a referendum so you voters can weigh in on the project and whether you want your taxes to increase to pay for it.   I’m cautiously anti-referendum…while asking voters’ consent to tax increases has common sense appeal, I think elected representatives are elected to make these decisions and (one hopes) have been given and have understood the information, heard and analyzed public opinion, considered the fiscal state of the city and then can act for the common good.  I’ll plead guilty to all charges of idealism with the intent to commit rational decision-making.

The 2nd major facility improvement being considered is the Library expansion. I’m not neutral about the Library – I think the Northfield Public Library is one of the City’s real assets.  Despite being cramped (just try to shoe-horn yourself into the children’s area on a Saturday), cutting their budget and staff, having Rice County lower its funding, and reducing hours (the Library won’t be open Sunday afternoon for budget reasons) the Library continues to post record circulation and usage numbers.   But that’s not all:

  • Children’s programming has been so successful it exceeds the occupancy limits of the Library meeting room
  • Booker the Book Bus takes the Library out to the community
  • the Library has added more job search and career resources to meet needs in tough times
  • more Spanish language materials have been added to serve our Latino residents
  • the active Friends of the Library raises money to support library programs
  • the Library Board has been working for at least 5 years planning for expansion (see the FAQ and all the long range planning documents), gathering public input, educating the City Council, collaborating with the NDDC and EDA to consider how a larger library downtown can also be a catalyst for adding parking and revitalizing the north end of Division Street.

Indeed, something like the Library’s intentional, detailed, collaborative planning process (and public education about its planning process) could have been helpful with the Safety Center, although I’m not sure how this might have worked. Unlike public safety, the Library has had the benefit of strong leadership on the Library Board aided by skilled Board members who have done the networking and educating – a good example of highly effective citizen board.   And the Library is a facility which many of us visit and use often.

The Library expansion bottom line from the draft CIP is $10,000,000 (again exclusive of land acquisition) with $900,000 pencilled in for 2012 and the remainder in 2013.   The Library Board has also issued an RFP for a fund-raising feasibility consultant to help determine how much private funding might be reasonable to expect for the project.

Beyond these two big projects, the CIP also deals with the ongoing investment Northfield must make in its infrastructure: streets, sewer, water, sidewalks, etc.    Some proposed projects depend on grants (such as pedestrian improvements to Highways 3 & 19) while others are part of the City’s on-going maintenance and repair.

Finally, there’s the “parking lot” which has nothing to do with constructing new parking (although $50,000 is included for 2010 for a study for a possible downtown parking ramp).  This is where possible projects without identified funding sources are parked – broadband, Mill Towns trail repair, a couple of County road projects.

Safety Center recommendation on Council agenda

The Safety Center Task Force was given 90 days to meet, review information and return to the Council with recommendations about the size, location and financing of a new Safety Center and here’s their answer:

1. Recommendation on Building Size: Having reviewed the data presented to the Taskforce, the Taskforce recommends to the City Council to construct a combined Public Safety Center of 47,500 square feet in size.

2. Recommendation on Building Location: Utilizing the Site Selection Criteria and after a thorough review of 13 sites throughout the City, the Taskforce is recommending two sites for Council consideration:

a. Valley Co-Op located on Highway 3
b. Cowles Property located on Riverview Drive.

Either site will meet the needs of a combined Public Safety Center. The Taskforce strongly encourages the City Council to do a detailed review of all flood protection criteria to determine what can be done at the current Safety Center Site and explore ideas relating to reuse of this site as “gateway” to the City.

3. Recommendation on Financing: Having reviewed the data presented by City Finance staff and the City’s Bond Council, the Taskforce recommends the City Council consider the following options for financing:

a. Voter approval through a referendum of the sale of $10.4 million in General Obligation Bonds.
b. City Council approval of the sale of $10.4 million in Capital Improvement Bonds, subject to a reverse referendum.

The Taskforce further recommends that regardless of which financing option the City Council chooses, a thorough public education process be done prior to approval to move forward with financing.

Read the full report included as an addendum to the Council packet

There are a lot of numbers in the report including 4 pages of square footage for each program or space in the current facility and then a new (usually larger) space requirement allotted by the schematic design for a new facility.   I do not want to debate each item, but I would like to know how the numbers were determined in a general way.  Were these numbers calculated from some industry standard which says for x number of police personnel the facility should have y square feet of locker room space (if so, what is that standard)?   Were they estimated based on inferences from other facilities in the region (if so, which ones?)?  Were they pulled out of thin air (I hope not)?  I am especially interested in how the future growth allowances were figured…

Some numbers are conspicuously absent from the report. In the “Project Budget” for the recommended 47,500 SF facility, the total cost is estimated at $10,400,000 not including site purchase.   The site evaluation matrix included “cost” as one criterion for selecting a location for the facility.   But just how much does the choice of site affect the price tag?  Cost of the property is one number, but what about site preparation, infrastructure and access improvements and any other site specific investments?   And is $10+ million dollars for 47,500 SF a reasonable amount at all?  Looks like $185 per square foot for police administrative spaces and $155 per square foot for all other spaces is the muliplier…where does this number come from?  What’s the per square foot cost of other, comparable, facilities?

Also missing: useful information about the current Safety Center site. The Task Force recommended 2 other sites rather than reusing the current site, but then indicates more information is needed about the current location.  Why is the Task Force asking for information about this so late in the game?   Some questions of reuse or rebuilding might seem to be downstream issues not relevant to the new Safety Center, but if we could sell the current site, for example, and collect property taxes from that highly visible corner, that could offset some of the cost of the new facility.   Or the City could be saddled with a difficult to reuse site.

Referendum or no referendum? At my Ward meeting there was some lively discussion about this one.  One the one hand, some thought that raising taxes for this project required the public buy-in that a referendum brings (assuming it passes anyway).  The other view was that asking the voters for approval on such projects was a step down the road toward California-style government by proposition (which is expensive, to say the least) and reverse referendum would be available if there was great public disapproval.  I tend toward the “no referendum” side because I think the Council is elected to make tough decisions and to lead the city.   Raising taxes is a step which must be undertaken only when truly justified to support the City’s operations.   The Council must be very sure that the increase is needed and that the dollars will be spent wisely…which gets back to all those questions above.