2018’s Greatest Hits (and misses)

Because it’s New Year’s Eve, it must be time to review 2018, right?

What I Read in 2018

Although my favorite novel of the year was Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, I’m having a huge amount of fun with The Art of the Fold, and I failed (again) to finish Gravity’s Rainbow, here’s the list of blog-relevant reading ((with some links to real reviews and commentary).

Read it

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. Many people have heard about redlining and restrictive covenants on property. Many Minnesotans know about how I-94 between Minneapolis and Saint Paul eviscerated the (African-American) Rondo neighborhood. There’s much more and Rothstein builds the case for de jure (not “just” de facto) segregation in where African Americans were allowed to live, mixed neighborhoods destroyed to build new segregated housing, government financing and other programs not available to African-Americans…and we can see the effects in Northfield, too.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro. I don’t recommend reading this whole, huge book, but learning about how Robert Moses used the machinery of government to amass great power in appointed positions to build huge projects intended to further a very narrow but very clear vision is jaw-dropping. More broadly, Moses’ New York park, bridge, and parkway projects envision cities where everyone drives a car and neighborhoods in the path of “progress” are expendable; this development pattern was replicated across the country and finally the pendulum is swinging back to building communities which are more equitable, more connected, and more livable.

6 Rules for walkable cities – finding multiple messages for why walkability is important.

Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places by Jeff Speck
. Call this the antidote to Robert Moses with 101 ways (illustrated with case studies, graphs, links, photos from around the country), large and small, to build really walkable, wonderful places. I wouldn’t call this about “rules,” but more a catalog of possibilities and much which could be done in Northfield (and some which already have).

Northfield projects

Here’s a quick look back at the important land use and transportation stuff in Northfield this year from my perspective with links to what I’ve already written about this stuff (or other information and media coverage)

Incremental development developments: ADUs will get easier to build as the City rolls back regulations on accessory dwelling units.

Aurora Pharmaceuticals is the example of the pattern of development we need which is multi-story, on existing infrastructure, with quality jobs.

Division Street reconstruction is a win for people walking and rolling.

The referendum to adopt a sales tax and sell bonds to build a new Ice Arena failed

Big picture! The EDA brought Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 to Northfield and his talk illustrated where the most highly productive property (in tax revenue per acre) in the city is located (downtown’s development pattern is the most productive ). I’ve been pushing Urban3’s ideas for several years (like here and here), but it really helps to have the expert talk about it and watching lightbulbs go on above audience members’ heads was great.

Graphic of tax value per acre – the tall purple spikes are high value downtown (Image Urban3)

On to 2019

Greenvale Park Elementary School: The voters approved bonding to build a new elementary school on the Greenvale Park campus, retaining the existing building for early childhood education. A huge, shining, golden opportunity to think about not only the building, but how kids (and adults) can get to the campus with special focus on helping people walk, roll, and bike and reducing vehicle pickups and drop-offs.

246/Jefferson Roundabout: I look at this one with great hope and sheer terror. This project has the capacity to change (for the better) how Northfielders can get around town for a generation (or continue to force us to drive). The City has received grant funding for a roundabout…this brings down the cost to the City and jumpstarts the project, but leaps to the conclusion that a roundabout is the best solution for this intersection. The goal: an intersection design which prioritizes people first and not vehicle throughput. Because this intersection links schools, senior center, and much much more, ensuring young and old people can safely and enjoyably walk, bike, roll, skateboard, skate, scooter through this intersection is the difference between kids being able to get to school by themselves…or not.

Ice Arena: It hasn’t gone away just because voters said “no” on a bond and sales tax referendum. Northfield needs to work on both the process and the underlying policy issues here before spending a dime.

New Community Development Director: Mitzi Baker began work as the Community Development Director in early December. In my first interaction with her during an event with all the finalists for the job, she said “Transportation and land use must be much more closely integrated” and I almost fell off my chair since I’ve been trying to convince city staff about this for years. I am so looking forward to changes in economic and community development in 2019, especially with the projects on the table.

Dear Representative Bly

A very nice deck chair from the Titanic

Still a very nice deck chair from the Titanic

So, Senator Kevin Dahle’s tweet about LGA sparked a recent post and now my state representative David Bly’s newsletter has me blogging on a related issue.

Really, the issue is how can the public conversation begin to address the relationship between property taxes and their friends (LGA, tax relief of various kinds, business subsidies), the crumbling infrastructure and the services taxes must fund, and what spending decisions we can make to change this landscape for the better.  Perhaps Rep. Bly and Sen. Dahle understand these issues very well, but so far they are only choosing to write the quick and easy stuff for constituents.

Dear Rep. Bly,

Congratulations on your return to the legislature and thank you for your continued service. Just as I took your senate colleague Kevin Dahle to task over his tweet about increasing LGA in response to requests from district mayors, I’m writing to challenge you to consider and, even more important, talk about the larger picture.

In your weekly newsletter of February 8, you said:

I agree with the Governor on his assessment that we need to reduce property taxes. The consistent increase hits low and middle-income earners much harder. Middle class families have been squeezed too much in the last ten years. Wages have remained flat while the cost of living has steadily increased. Many Minnesotans are finding it harder to save for retirement and send their kids to college. As the Governor said, this is not the Minnesota we want to leave our children. We need Minnesota to be a state that invests in its people and provides quality, efficient services.

Your remarks indicate you are concerned about equity for middle and lower income families.  I agree, but question the strategy you endorse for achieving it.  As with my letter to your colleague Senator Dahle, I question whether you are going for the quick fix without even attempting to figure out how to improve the tax system in the longer term for a sustainable state budget.

In particular, the relationship among taxes, local government costs, and policy choices which have skewed the market and the landscape remains unexamined, but it is these structural issues which desperately need your attention. My vote in the next election for you or any politician depends entirely on your contribution to shifting the conversation from short term fix to sustainable policy.  In addition the issues I raised for Senator Dahle, I have these questions:

How regressive are MN property taxes?  A new report Who Pays? evaluates state tax systems for regressiveness; sales taxes are much more regressive than property taxes, but I urge you to take a look at Minnesota’s overall tax burden on its residents and how regressive it is.  Minnesota’s sales tax was created to fund property tax relief back in 1967; this seems like a very inequitable method for change.  Please also consider how previous legislatures have tried to shift the burden to commercial/industrial property with higher class rates and the state general tax; this shift creates superficial equity for homestead tax payers while imposing an obstacle to our economic drivers who, typically, require fewer city services.  Again, please evaluate how the system is balanced rather than simply reducing one component.

Property taxes, housing costs and location: The size of homes has been increasing since the 1950s and, as a result, so have the taxes.  Part of the housing and transportation cost equation depends on where we live relative to where we work, too.  Since your district has Northfield, Londsale and other communities which became more attractive to commuters to the metro area in the last decade, there are also many homeowners who pay a great deal in transportation plus housing.  “Drive ’til you qualify” may have yielded more house for the money for individuals, but also increased household costs. So, it is not too surprising to read that housing and transportation costs taken together are outpacing incomes.  If households are paying more of their income for housing and transportation, then property taxes will be more of a burden.  Before cutting taxes, think about how the incentives for more efficient and economical development can help reduce both government and homeowner costs.

How good is Governor Dayton’s plan?  I’m not impressed.  MinnPost’s Steve Dornfeld critiques the plan and finds 3 big issues: increased complexity (see the final report from the Property Tax Working Group, too), creating new inequities, and providing incentives for local governments to raise taxes in the future. I’d add that Gov. Dayton’s plan adds economic development policies which will continue to incentivize the race to the bottom which will continue to use tax dollars to lure business to Minnesota through tax abatement and infrastructure subsidies while also including new sales taxes for business services which follows the historical pattern of trying to offset property tax issues with sales tax.

As I said to Senator Dahle, I’m counting on your leadership to help develop policies which benefit all Minnesotans for the long term, not just the constituents yelling at you right now.  Of course, I also know that change happens incrementally as you work to build support and make compromises (and that’s just within the DFL) and that I am asking for a staggering amount of reform, but I am looking for you to shift the conversation away from reactive government to thoughtful, sustainable policy-making.  Good luck!


Betsey Buckheit

Rarely economical disappointing development

First, the NY Times series on subsidies and now the Strib has Art Rolnick (former head of research at the Minneapolis Fed) and business writer Mike Meyers bringing the Times’ information back to Minnesota in the context of Governor Dayton’s tax plan in The Subsidy Bonanza.

A few highlights:

  • Stadium subsidies are “part of a national pattern of taxpayers subsidizing some of the richest people in America.”
  • Minnesota outpaces the nation in job growth, but is not a big subsidizer.  So adding more taxpayer money to lure companies hasn’t proven effective, although it is expensive even for the small players (about 1 cent of every dollar in the Minnesota state budget).  Yet, “Study after study has shown the education of Minnesota’s workforce has been the key to the growth of high-quality jobs for the last half-century.”
  • A catalog of the Twin Cities projects which have been subsidized and not delivered on the promises: Best Buy, stadiums, City Center, Lawson Software…

Rolnick also commented on the Mayo deal over in Minneapolis/St Paul Business Journal comparing Mayo to the Vikings stadium deal.



New CommunityMatters partnership

Community that matters

Some of my favorite organizations have formed a new CommunityMatters partnership dedicated to the idea that people have the power to shape and strengthen their communities; CommunityMatters plans to provide some tools to help do it.  Strong Towns, Project for Public Spaces plus 4 other partners and supported by the Orton Foundation form the partnership.  One of the first projects is the Citizens’ Institute for Rural Design which brings together the CM partners plus the USDA and NEA to convene workshops intended to help rural communities enhance economic vitality and quality of life.  Bill Roper of the Orton Family Foundation said:

Over recent decades too many small towns have gone from the unique to the uniform, subject to cookie-cutter design and development.  But people have the power to weave a new community narrative for the future, one that enhances their town’s unique heart and soul. This uniqueness is core to small towns’ lasting economic success built on local assets. We are excited to bring all the knowledge, skills and resources of this partnership to aid America’s rural communities and help them thrive.

Sounds a lot like recent economic development conversations in Northfield highlighting local assets and unique features – I’m looking forward to learning more.

User-friendly planning and development regulations

Facilitating frictionless economic development certainly got my attention.  Consider this statement:

Imagine you are trying to figure out how to apply for a permit for your new (or existing) business, and you land upon a maze of forms and requirements. You’re trying to do the right thing, but the bureaucracy isn’t making it easy. You go from feeling like a good citizen to feeling like a frustrated victim. And now it’s not just a permit you need, but a zoning clearance as well. Really? Why? Is this really necessary? Yargh!!

Does this sound familiar in Northfield?  It does to me as a former member of the Planning Commission and as a Council member.  Santa Cruz with Code for America, has attempted a common-sense development process with Open Counter (in beta release).  What do you think?

Of course, this is only the public face of the issue.  In Northfield, we still need to continue to revise the Land Development Code (which would be behind the clever, common-sense interface) for clear, predictable, flexible regulations which mandate compliance on aspects of development over which the city needs some control* but is otherwise adaptable.

*needs some control: I used to think we should regulate everything to “get the development we wanted.”  I now think no gov’t entity knows what it wants or how to get it (especially using the blunt, blunt zoning tool) and should leave that to the private sector.  But, some development decisions matter a great deal to the city and those are the ones which cost us money over the long term – infrastructure, street layout, parking, traffic issues, environmental issues.

Hospital study

Why study the hospital/city relationship at all since this is obviously an emotionally charged issue?

The city needs to ask tough, even painful, questions because it has real, structural budget issues which cannot be solved by a few cuts or some temporary austerity.  Even assuming the city keeps receiving local government aid from the state, it cannot maintain the infrastructure and facilities it currently has and struggles to continue services at the same levels.  The council is already facing the need to increase property taxes for the new public safety facilities and it cannot use the tax tool to solve all the problems.

What else can the city do?  Ask tough questions about everything the city owns, provides, and maintains to understand city operations and be able to make better decisions.  Ask if there are different ways to provide services.  Ask what the city can do to enhance its economic development potential.  Ask what tools are available (legally, politically, practically) to help ensure Northfield is a financially resilient city for the long term.

The hospital is our biggest asset.  Over just the last few years, starting in 2005, “the hospital” has grown to be the Northfield Hospital and Clinics in Northfield, Lonsdale, Lakeville, Farmington, and soon in Elko Newmarket.  The council and residents need to know how Northfield city ownership of a regional health system works, then ask what actions we might take to ensure the financial health of city and its healthcare system for the long term.

The City Charter divides up the responsibilities between the council-appointed hospital board and the council.  The hospital board controls and manages all hospitals and related medical facilities, but has no power to construct additional facilities, buy or sell any of these, or to levy taxes.  The council has the powers to construct new facilities, buy and sell them and levy taxes, but has no role in the operation of the hospital.  Despite approving the expansion by approving each land purchase, clinic project, etc., the council has not kept current with hospital strategy in a way that lets it understand what it means to own a regional healthcare system rather than a single hospital.

What basic principles will guide the discussion?  Perhaps some like this:

  • The council will not attempt to study healthcare industry, the future of healthcare, or the success of the hospital (which is shorthand for the entire system) as a healthcare provider – the council has no expertise and the Charter assigns this to the hospital board.
  • No action to benefit the city will be taken which can be foreseen to undermine the hospital’s financial or operational success – the suggestion that the council simply wants to get cash now, regardless of the impact on the hospital and the community is ludicrous.
  • The city values and wants to sustain a hospital in Northfield – in other words, it is important to have a high quality hospital in the city.
  • The city would like to understand more about the hospital, its operations, and strategic planning in order to make better informed decisions within its power as owner.
  • The city would like to develop a better framework for collaborating on decisions which impact both city government and the hospital.

Possible questions:

Basic, broad questions: what are the costs, benefits, and liabilities of owning a regional healthcare system?

Where do city/hospital needs, plans, missions intersect?  For instance:

  • what are the hospital’s infrastructure needs, are they considered in the city’s CIP, and how will costs be assessed?  The fringe location of the hospital increases these costs, so how do we plan for them effectively?
  • What does the city do which impacts public health and could benefit from participation (which could be informational, financial, etc.) by the hospital?
  • What development plans of the city impact the hospital or vice versa?  For example, could earlier conversations about the EMS facility have helped the council decide on a location for the public safety center sooner?  How does creating a public service cluster at that site guide future development?
  • How can the hospital participate in the city’s economic development efforts?  Healthcare has been identified as a target industry in the city’s economic development plan as has the more general objective of retaining existing businesses (and the hospital is one of our largest employers).

How can the city measure what matters about the hospital as it makes policy? In other words, how does the financial information figure in a larger picture of economic, environmental and social sustainability?  We’ve heard a lot about “quality of life” as a goal of city services, as something which attracts residents and businesses, and which contributes to our identity and well-being as a community.  In addition to being worth a lot of money, the hospital has great value for the city.  How does city ownership of the hospital increase the value?