Northfield Community Survey – my real answers

I just completed the Northfield Community Survey and you should, too. The survey is the mechanism by which the Council and city staff collect information from The Public (boards and commissions having had their own meetings) to inform their strategic planning process.

After I stopped sputtering with irritation about the questions which asked for gut-level answers to complex questions for which no education nor guidance was provided – indeed, the stunningly unstrategic nature of the exercise – I answered the questions. Here’s how I’d really answer them if I’d been given something beyond multiple choice.

1. Please tell us why you live in or have moved to Northfield: OK, this one’s easy. I moved to Northfield so my husband could teach at Carleton College (translation: I’m white, privileged, highly educated, and affluent. I’ll thrive regardless of what Northfield does. Most people presume I’m on the bleeding edge of liberal politics). 

Carleton College Arboretum

2. Low taxes are important to a community’s success. Taxes which are equitable, sufficient to fund the services residents need and want, and educated policy-makers who understand the relation between taxes, development patterns, and long-term costs are critical to a community’s sustainable success.

Educating taxpayers about the city tax structure is important, too, for when I get my tax bill from Rice County, the $3000+ amount for my property includes county, school district, and city taxes (including special taxing authorities like the EDA and HRA plus any special assessments on my property for infrastructure costs); I pay less than half of the total amount to the City of Northfield.

Educating taxpayers about the tradeoffs required for low taxes is also needed. It is not possible to have low taxes, high services, and great pavement. Working with the school district to build facilities which help cut costs and integrate services is also needed.

Development costs for city and developer (Image from Strong Towns)

3. & 4. The quality and price of services provided by the City of Northfield (is a complex question): 

  • Utilities: Water (drinking), wastewater (flushing), stormwater (street/property runoff), garbage (landfill), and recycling are mostly paid for by user fees (plus bonding for capital improvements which gets rolled into fees).  The water is clean and drinkable (a public health benefit not to be underestimated) and the other utilities are ok, but my assessment of quality and price includes whether the City is working to reduce stormwater runoff, reducing solid waste, and encouraging energy conservation.  Since I care about streets, I’m concerned that the city is barely discussing conservation and environmental sustainability and not connecting stormwater with city standards for streets.
  • Growth, development and services: The strategic question for the city – what is Northfield doing to manage water, wastewater, garbage collection, and stormwater in order to both sustain the environment, but also keep costs down? What is Northfield doing to reduce solid waste (and landfill costs), conserve water (reducing stress on aquifers), reduce runoff, and manage wastewater (new sewage treatment plant was on the horizon, but how and where we build also makes sewage easier or harder to get to said plant). Is the city scoring its development proposals for the amount of infrastructure required and the likely ability of tax dollars and fees to pay for that expense?
  • Other services: Library, parks, snowplowing, street-sweeping, police and fire, swimming pool and ice arena are general fund dollars. Some strategic partnerships help with parks (sports associations help manage fields, build trails, and do maintenance), library (the Friends and Foundation of the NPL raised much money to support the library expansion project as well as on-going library needs), the fire joint powers agreement is another way to share costs. The strategic question is how will we fund the services we want? The liberal, common-good model would provide more tax funding to the library, for example (so, see the question above about whether low taxes are the goal) while the conservative answer would be to privatize more (and then ask how this helps address poverty and inequity in town).
Library expansion – now finished

5. There are not adequate housing choices in the community: Northfield has built many acres of single family, market-rate homes on large lots and wide streets (and some have celebrated the growth in the tax base and creation of jobs as a result). Building smaller and building denser (and more affordably) is much more difficult and the private developers have mostly stayed away. So, the strategic question is: how can Northfield ensure a range of housing choices? Northfield can build more affordable housing (through the HRA, for example) using tax dollars and grants (often tax-funded at another level of government). Northfield can also revise its regulations away from minimum lot sizes and single-family only development with carefully segregated multi-family housing to encourage incremental development, adding density in existing neighborhoods, and removing obstacles to small-scale private development. How will Northfield address NIMBY-ism which argues against density or change? 

Missing Middle Housing (Image: http://missingmiddlehousing.com/)

6. We should do more to address poverty in Northfield. See the questions above and below, but provide information about the scope of the problem, what is within the City’s portfolio and tell us how city government, other levels of government, and the non-profit sector can work together. City government can work on certain slices of the poverty issue, but needs to network.

7. The City should place more emphasis in creating jobs and business growth. I think I have already said what i need to say about this one here (Business Park and infrastructure costs), here (economic gardening vs. business subsidies), here (black swans and resilience) and here (development pattern and costs). When I look at recent development, it’s not the big subsidy stuff nor the very fringe of town stuff – look at Vet Provisions/Aurora Pharmaceuticals (some JOBZ funding there, as I recall), Armory redevelopment (housing, community space, and brewery); new hotel and Tanzenwald Brewery on or near the Crossing (plus Brick Oven Bakery moving here), Content Bookstore, infill around Target (Maurice’s, Dollar Tree, Fielder’s Choice, YMCA), and out by the hospital satellite (Mayo radiation clinic). I see new business which builds on the attractiveness of Northfield as a place to live and visit or exploits the proximity/synergy of existing business, not pie-in-the-cornfields development. Thinking ahead, how can Northfield get more of this (without throwing money at developers)?

8. We need a thriving downtown for Northfield to be successful. And this one, too, here (importance of downtown) and here (downtown development is not just for liberals, but makes conservatives happy, too). And more parking is not the answer.

9. The City parks provide amenities, greenspace, and recreation that are quite generous: For a city its size, Northfield has lots of parks and lots of kinds of parks. The strategic question is – do our parks serve all our residents? I’d add other questions like: is it easy and safe to walk and bike to parks (rather than presuming we can all drive to the park we want to visit)? Do parks feel safe? Are parks maintained in environmentally sustainable ways?

10. The surface conditions of the streets in the City range from good to horrible. Short-termism 15 years ago lead to budget cutting by delaying street maintenance which, very quickly, was shown to snowball with more streets deteriorating and making it very expensive to play catch-up. The strategic question is: how does Northfield look at its street network and how well it connects the city and, if it chooses to continue to build wide streets with low density development, who will pay for the maintenance…or, how does the City encourage building more compactly to make better use of its streets (with more taxpayers to fewer miles to help pay)prioritize routes). Asking about whether special assessments are the best way to pay for street repairs is another worthy question to ask. In specific locations such as around Central Park right now, how does the City ask the Colleges to pay for the wear and tear of construction equipment on city streets?

Safe crossing of 7th Street needed

11. What is your preferred form of media used to receive City of Northfield news and announcements?  A really good website. The latest revamp is slightly, but only slightly better. But, really, don’t worry about me because I’ll find the information I want because I’m educated, connected to the internet, know my way around City Hall, etc. 

12. Northfield should place more emphasis on communication effort to improve public information on City services and activities. Obviously, I think the City needs to do a great deal more to help residents know how city government works, what it costs, and how various policies interact to be more or less sustainable. First, I think the Council should educate themselves, seek better experts to advise on projects, and then use multiple channels to take information to Northfielders and ask for their feedback. This survey was a example of how not to do it.

For a few of the short answer questions not considered above:

13. What do you like best about Northfield? On a daily basis, downtown and the Carleton Arb (for those who say colleges are a drain on the economy because they pay no taxes, I’d say they add much in cultural offerings, education for high school students, open space for study and recreation, the renewable resource of students who come, thrive and help informally market Northfield, and being high-quality employers).

17. What are/should be the top priorities for the City over the next 3-5 years? Already wrote that one here.

When there’s trouble I am not slow. It’s up, up, up and away I go! (to make good policy in a city I know)

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