Northfield City Council elections might seem less than important when the world is on fire both literally (wildfires, protests) and figuratively (covid-19, presidential election, Black Lives Matter, Supreme Court, climate destruction, recession, unemployment…).
Most people think of city government as the lowest level of government and presumably less important. Local races may not generate the light and heat of other races, but city government gets shit done.
City government gets shit done.
You can’t flush your toilet, take a shower, bike around town, borrow a library book, play in the park, get trash picked up, have a beer, or get a building permit in Northfield without city government. And, relevant to current events, city government plans for emergencies, can adopt regulations and policies which reduce systemic racism, and takes action to combat climate change. How much the city can do – and how we pay for it – depends on your vote.
Vote all the way down the ballot
Council races are “down ballot” races which are sometimes “flip the ballot over and read the back” races along with county commissioners, school board members, judges, and soil and water district commissioners. It’s sometimes harder to learn about these candidates to cast an informed vote, but local races are where candidates can win with some hard work, but without a lot of money or a big organization so new voices can be heard. Voters need to know that many people don’t vote all the way down their ballot, so a few votes can make all the difference (as I discovered). Down ballot races are where change starts.
What’s down your ballot
Every two years, Northfield elects half the Council. Presidential years like 2020 see the Mayor, one at-large seat, and the Ward 2 & 3 seats up for election (2022 will be the other at large seat, plus wards 1 & 4).
Down your ballot you’ll find (depending on where you live in Northfield) these races (with links to on-line information where I can find it)
What’s on my ballot: The Minnesota Secretary of State website will show you a sample ballot for your voting ward and precinct when you enter your address.
Register to vote online or by downloading/printing forms (including information about special situations like being a college student, living abroad, experiencing homelessness and more). You can check your registration online, too, and find out about registering on election day.
Northfield’s City Council is getting ready to discuss Woodley Street’s sidewalks on October 28. If this work session conversation follows the well-worn path of earlier sidewalk and street improvement projects, it will go something like this: progressive Council members who consider projects in the context of Northfield’s adopted policy (Comprehensive Plan, Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets), support building transportation equity into the system, and generally look for long-term, high return on investment solutions will support sidewalks noting the importance of the corridor for schools, parks, and downtown. The others will respond to the project in isolation, highlight the shortest term bottom line, question the need for sidewalks, and respond immediately to NIMFYs. Sidewalks have become the litmus test which reveal the Council’s and individual Council members’ priorities and values rather starkly.
“When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.”
For Woodley Street, this statement (and much of Mr Speck’s post) makes great sense since there are three likely arguments against sidewalks on (both sides) of Woodley Street. They are…
There’s not enough space!
Rice County encourages sidewalks (and trails and earthen berms) along minor arterials like Woodley Street (although classified as a minor arterial, the current design of Woodley Street more closely matches the standards for major collectors), but requires they be placed outside boulevards which demands an additional 10-16’ of ROW for 5-8’ sidewalks. For Woodley, which functions as a local street with driveways, homes fronting the length of this segment, and multiple intersections, and its context which connects schools, homes, downtown and more. constrained by the homes on either side, this is not very encouraging at all.
Northfield, in its Comprehensive Plan, calls for 10-12’ travel lanes with an assortment of other requirements for parking, sidewalks, bike lanes, and boulevards depending on how we classify the street. The policy guidance could be seen as more encouraging – narrower lanes, variable shoulder/parking requirements etc. appear possible – but also less clear. Northfield’s Complete Streets guidance to narrow lane widths as part of developing better pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure also gestures in the right direction, but does not require action.
So we could make “more” space by shrinking travel lanes if Rice County could be convinced to consider design changes, and help solve some of the issues noted earlier – shrinking crossing distance for pedestrians and building more function and value into this corridor.
It’s not safe!
“Safe” has become one of those red-flag words for me. When someone on either side of a debate uses the “S” word, it’s intended to stop debate because no one can argue against safety, can they? But what is really safer (and supported by relevant data)? Jeff Speck’s piece lined up the literature showing narrower lanes are often safer, rather than the reverse, in urban settings.
Woodley Street serves as a local street with driveways, regular intersections, etc. but it is also a County road intended to move traffic through town. For a rural County road between, say, Northfield and Faribault through agricultural land, the transportation and access needs are rather different from a street through the Urban Core and the design should shift accordingly.
Narrowing travel lanes (and perhaps the shoulder) on Woodley Street would help cue drivers they had left the wide open rural roadway and should slow down, look for entering and existing traffic, pay attention to intersections and consider non-motorized transportation. Safety could be enhanced, rather than the opposite.
Really, the issue is not so much a question of space as priorities. County roads allocate space exclusively to motorized traffic; this is not unreasonable for roads with limited access to property and few intersections intended to move vehicles, including large farm equipment, between cities at high speeds. City streets – or county roads in the urban core – have also allocated almost all their space to motorized traffic, too, with 12’ lane widths and inconsistent sidewalks.
Northfield has waved its policy-making hands at shifting priorities, so at the safe distance of a Comprehensive Plan and Complete Streets policy, sidewalks and non-motorized transportation are important and should be improved, but fall by the wayside when particular projects are on the table. For both County and City, there has been willingness and eagerness to fund “soft” improvements like the Bikable Community Workshop and bicycle safety training (through Rice County Public Health and the City of Northfield), but stopping short of “hard” infrastructure change.
I have two fears. First, the Council will take the County design standards as inviolable and, at best, try to scrape as much accommodation for bicycles and pedestrians as possible under those very limited circumstances/strict constraints. Multi-jurisdictional projects are always more complex, but the Council could ask questions about real safety (rather than just conversation –stopping “safety”) and adapting the standard collector/arterial design to better fit the surrounding land use and community needs. There’s more space for sidewalks than the County standard design suggests, narrowing the street is safe and efficient, and the long-term benefits are great.
Second, NIMFYs (Not In My Front Yard) are loud, angry and persistent in Northfield, especially when it comes to sidewalks. In a recent sidewalk issue on Maple Street, Councilmember David Ludescher stated “Citizens know better than we do what they want” so if current property owners don’t want sidewalks, that’s sufficient for deciding the issue against them. Again, as policymakers for the city as a whole, the Council should consider how to build value and equity into the system for the long-term and broader population rather than capitulating to the loudest and most personally interested voices.
My hope is the Council will see this project as an important time-limited opportunity to both expand and focus their conversation next week by paying attention to lane widths. Considering the simple change of narrowing travel lanes (without sacrificing safety or traffic flow) could change the broader landscape for the better.
Tonight at the Council worksession, they’ll be discussing the Capital Improvement Plan. I believe the CIP is the single most important tool the City has…and Northfield’s, while greatly improved over the last few years, is still not what it could be. The goal is to plan for and schedule projects to ensure the city is not spending money on things which cost more to maintain than they return on the investment and that the city can identify the revenue to cover the initial costs and the upkeep.
The City, as part of the CIP review, should:
Inventory what we already have, then develop ways to present this to the Council and public which are clear, not misleading and continually updated (surely someone can come up with great data visualizations for municipal planning and spending). Northfield’s Councilmembers should have flashcards so they could answer (in round, ballpark numbers):
How much do we have (e.g. square feet of street, lineal feet of sewer, number of buildings, etc.)?
What are the (annual, 10-year, etc.) maintenance costs?
When do those costs come due (how old are those buildings, streets, etc.)?
What is the revenue stream to cover those costs (general fund, utility fees, etc.)?
Prioritize projects because there will not be enough money to do everything. Here’s where the Council should be reviewing the long-range plans (like the Comprehensive Plan and its progeny) to remind themselves of priorities which have already been established, updating those plans by gathering citizen input and making the tough choices about what to allocate money to do including both immediate needs and longer term goals for improvement. Policies and plans can help put individual spending choices in a larger context and (one hopes) avoid duplication and increase strategic spending.
The process needs to be part education (Council needs to answer the questions above then convey the picture to the public) and part strategic planning and spending. Not easy. Good luck tonight, Council.
The City Council has three major policy decisions to make related to the new Public Safety Center:
1. Reconfirm the joint Public Safety Center (PSC) Project
2. Choose a site for the PSC
3. Establish a budget and financing for the PSC project
These are important decisions, but these are not policy problems. These are concrete, implementation problems. Unfortunately, the Council has not yet really been clear about the underlying policy problems and I consider myself at fault for failing to articulate questions clearly and not finding ways to guide the discussion more fruitfully. And, of course, hindsight helps, too. So, from the acres/tons/volumes of raw information we’ve received, here’s how I’m trying to structure my own thinking for the discussion tonight:
1. Let’s review ALL the capital spending we anticipate: I’d love a user-friendly inventory of all existing capital assets, but simply working with our CIP we can construct a forecast of the capital projects, their cost and approximate timing of expenditures. So far, we’ve discussed the library (CIP includes $7.6 million in 2015). Street improvements are a regular item on our agendas, but we’re struggling find ways to catch up with street reconstruction/repair. Goal: make choices for the PSC which will not adversely affect the city’s ability to maintain and replace other capital assets in future years or at least be able to project the limitations the PSC will create.
2. Let’s determine how much debt we can afford. We’ve begun to discuss the “how much” issue in relation to our street reconstruction projects, but not for the PSC and future facilities projects and not all together. For an $8.5 million dollar bond issue, our finance director has projected an annual levy of $600,000. – this levy amount is about 50% of our current debt levy and almost 3x the total levy increase for 2012. Where will the revenue to pay the add’l debt service come from? It doesn’t get any easier when our revenue stream is partly in the hands of the state legislature and its decisions on local government aid.
We need help from staff to bring this information together in a useful form so the Council understands the consequences and so we can clearly explain it to you taxpayers since you’ll be paying for it. So, if we had knew what we needed to replace when AND had developed guidance on how much debt we should reasonably issue relative to our expected revenue, our budget choices would become a lot clearer. And, if the budget choices were clearer, I suspect the site, design and timeline would also come into focus.
The other large unanswered question not entirely unrelated to the above: “Partners”: We’ve talked about our partners – colleges, Dundas, rural fire association – but what sort of relationship are we talking about? We have a rough commitment for a capital contribution of $500,000 from the rural fire association. However, the service agreement is decades old and Northfield relies on the rural association’s equipment.
The Council is scheduled to receive an update on our partners tonight. I’m eager for this update since the Council hasn’t had much information about the details of negotiations, so my more cynical self thinks it looks like Northfield tries to see how much we can get our not entirely enthusiastic customers to pay without giving them a great deal of input on what they’re buying. So far, contract talks seem stalled. A bolder alternative strategy would be to create a regional fire district governed by a joint powers agreement for services, facilities and equipment? It would certainly clarify the relationship, support Northfield’s interest in regional solutions, and perhaps build in a more sustainable structure where all parties have a strong stake in helping the fire district succeed.