Business Park “brief update” – this project gives me indigestion and may give me nightmares. I have not (yet) heard the EDA or the Council discuss the full range of possible costs to the city, what incentives to companies might be offered to entice them to locate here, an assessment of the transportation issues…I don’t expect to get any Useful information tomorrow night, just a happy presentation about the Master Planning committee and the great things ahead.
Utility Rate Study update: Although storm water, waste water and just plain water are mentioned, the bulk of the materials in the packet suggests that the bulk of the discussion will center on the proposed streetlight utility. The streetlight utility has received the most media attention (Northfield News here, Locally Grown here) as well as (non-positive) responses from Carleton and St Olaf.
I’m in favor of the streetlight utility, but I’m less thrilled with how we’ve reached this point. If I unpack this one (I’m trying not to say “shed some light on it”), I find:
- Policy: Is it appropriate to shift funding of the streetlight network from the general fund to a utility? Creating the utility would mean establishing a separate enterprise fund for for the maintenance and upgrading of the network; the fund would receive the fee charged for street lighting which would appear on utility billing statements. The criticism heard about creating a new fee is overrated. Residents will be paying for streetlights regardless – shifting to utility billing means more transparency: you get to see what you’ll be paying on a monthly basis rather than having the cost rolled into the city’s tax levy. The utility model gives the city one tool by which we can shift the extra burden on commercial taxpayers toward residential customers (although it is not clear that we will structure fees this way). Finally, the utility would allow the city to spread the cost of street lighting over more users by allowing us to bill our property tax-exempt properties (hence the reaction from the colleges). I will acknowledge the slippery slope problem: if we shift street lighting to utility billing, what will stop us from shifting, say, parks to this kind of funding? Or other city services? I’ll dodge that one for now.
- Operational choices: how, in administrative and practical terms, would the change take place – this is a staff job.
- Public relations: Even though, from the city’s perspective, a streetlight utility fee would be both more transparent and spread the cost over more customers, it should also be pretty obvious that itemizing the cost on utility bills will be a surprise to customers – it looks like a brand new fee as if the city is just starting to charge for street lighting. It should be blindingly obvious our tax-exempt customers will find this an even bigger surprise and might even think the motivation for the fee is to find a way to extract money from the Colleges as a kind of punishment for not paying taxes. For individual residents, the city should have been out in front of the Northfield News in explaining the shift – perhaps we need to issue press releases early on to avoid media surprises. For the Colleges, we should have asked them to join the discussion early and often as we developed our policy. I don’t think this means we allow Colleges to veto the policy if they don’t like it, but rather the city makes an intentional and deliberate effort to work with College representatives to discuss, inform, and get that buy-in we talk about so often. I have yet to figure out how Council members can best help with this component – there are enough issues, that we tend to wait to be informed and that clearly isn’t sufficient. All suggestions welcome.
More budget presentations: Liquor Operations, Motor Vehicles Fund, Finance Department, Debt Service Funds.