1st Ward Councilman Jim Pokorney nailed it when he observed that in his 8 years on the Council no other meeting like Monday night’s meeting between the Dundas and Northfield elected officials had ever taken place.
Ostensibly, the meeting was called to discuss the possibility of sharing services to save money. Mayor Mary Rossing outlined 3 areas for discussion:
- Identity: How do we share services without losing our respective identities/do citizens care who delivers services?
- Services: What services are we considering sharing and what is off the table?
- Next steps: where do we go from here?
“Identity” was really Dundas’ identity. Given the disparity in size (Northfield’s population is almost 20,000; Dundas about 1,000), budget, and city staff size, the presumption was, bluntly, how can Northfield deliver services to Dundas without erasing Dundas’ identity? Asking about identity was an acknowledgment, sort of, that Northfield is perceived as the big bully in the neighborhood. I appreciate the growing understanding on the part of Northfield that we have not treated our neighbors with a great deal of respect, but anyone watching this meeting could tell that Northfield Council members are still learning.
Services: As there was no set agenda here, the discussion roamed around various services: police, water, sewer, building inspections, planning, fire…and a few relevant distinctions were made and issues raised:
- “Personal” services vs. “faceless” services: Police protection is highly personal. Dundas has 3 police officers (Northfield has 22) and, with 3 officers and 1000 people, the connection between Dundas and its own police force is very close. Attempting to share this sort of service seems unlikely given the loss of identity and connectedness Dundas would experience. Infrastructure related services: sewer, water, etc. are impersonal and I don’t know of anyone who has a very close relationship with wastewater treatment personnel.
- How are services provided now…and what might shared? We were a wee bit short on information here. Dundas already contracts for most of its services; Northfield has in-house staff. This was a first meeting, so the level of generality was understandable, but I’d have liked to have had some background information on the status quo: how each city provides a service, comparison of rates, what services are good candidates for sharing (because we could realize economies of scale, for example).
- Popular but undefined and tricky catchphrases: win-win, parity, equity, fair. It would seem obvious that any arrangement would strive to be fair, but these sorts of terms fall into my category of “trivially true.” Of course we want to be fair, but what does that mean? Once unpacked a bit, we found there was some subtext here about perceptions of current unfairness. Mayor Rossing hinted at disparity in wastewater rates (Northfield pays more) and that the current agreement about wastewater (Dundas connects to our sewer system by MPCA fiat – there are pages and pages of backstory here) is unfair. Again, without some data, it is hard to evaluate current and future fairness.
- Capital vs. operating expenses: The new public safety facilities triggered some very interesting discussion. It is one thing to contract for fire protection (an operating expense) and it is another to ask for Dundas to help underwrite the capital cost of Northfield’s new fire hall. If Dundas is a fire protection partner and a capital partner, does this mean Dundas can participate in the planning of the facility including limiting costs? I’m with Dundas on this one: if Northfield wants capital buy-in, we have work to plan the facility together for the best service for all partners at a cost we can all afford; Northfield cannot simply send a bill to Dundas for what Northfield believes is the right price.
Next Steps: Transportation was identified as a prime area for joint planning and execution. I’ve been arguing for regional transportation planning for years, so I’m on board with this one. And, a subcommittee of 2 Councilmembers from each city plus staff as needed will be formed to work on these issues further. Stay tuned.