City reaps few legislative successes amid stalemate

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May 24, 2004 // UPDATED 1:44 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Apartments might get a utility cut, while parking lot owners could pay more, and a Downtown block gets redevelopment help

Who said the Legislature didn't get anything done? It passed a bill that will allow Minneapolis to change how it bills for sewer use.

The city's top priorities went down the drain, however.

The city, park and library systems had significant requests in the state's bonding bill. These all died when the Republican-controlled House and DFL-led Senate failed to reach a compromise and adjourned May 16.

The governor could call a special session. That decision hinges on bitterly divided legislative leaders agreeing on an agenda, observers said.

The Minneapolis Library Board and the city made the new planetarium their top state borrowing priority. Timing is critical. The city needs the money soon to build the planetarium simultaneously with the new Downtown Central Library -- saving future disruptions and cost.

Parke Kunkle, president of the Minnesota Planetarium Society, said the city had asked the state for $24 million of the planetarium's $28 million budget. (When the legislature adjourned, the Senate had $24 million in its plan; the House had nothing, he said.)

What the city received

Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward), who chairs the Council's Intergovernmental Relations Committee, said the city had two session successes: the sewer bill and legislation to speed up the Nicollet Hotel block redevelopment north of the new Central Library.

The Downtown property, a city-owned vacant lot between Hennepin and Washington avenues, Nicollet Mall and 3rd Street, will have a publicly funded underground bus garage topped by a privately funded housing development. State law required a separate proposal for the garage. The dual contracts made the project uninviting for developers that would have to coordinate work and scheduling with another company. Recently, the city received only one reply when it sent the split project out for bid.

The state law change allows the city to have a single developer. (The anticipated $2.2 million land sale will help fund the Nicollet Mall circulator bus, a key element to light-rail transit's success.)

The new sewer law allows the city to create a separate storm water utility. The city currently charges property owners based on water use but doesn't measure storm water a property sends through city sewers, said Pierre Willett, a city lobbyist.

City leaders sought the change when some property owners brought legal action, saying the current system isn't fair.

Apartment buildings, for instance, have high water usage but a relatively small land area and runoff. Willett said they could see lower fees.

Surface parking lots don't use potable water, but do generate storm water runoff. They could see a fee increase, he said. The Public Works Department is still working on the new billing formula, and the fee changes are as yet unknown.

Other Minnesota cities already had permission to create such a system.

City bonding

Other mothballed city bonding requests included $10 million for Downtown's Shubert Performing Arts; $9.6 million for infrastructure and amenities for Heritage Park, a Near Northside housing redevelopment; $9 million for University Research Park and Education Center, and $3 million for the Health Careers Institute.

Benson looked on the bright side, noting the Legislature at least did not further cut the city's local government aid or cripple light-rail transit (LRT).

"We kept a lot of bad things from happening," Benson said. "That is usually half the battle."

Parks and schools

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's biggest legislative achievement was getting the state to include sections of the Grand Rounds in Northeast Minneapolis in the Metro Parks regional park system, said Commissioner Walt Dziedzic, who chairs the intergovernmental relations committee. It makes Columbia Parkway, Stinson Boulevard and Ridgeway Parkway eligible for Met Council trail maintenance money.

When the bonding bill died, the Park Board lost approximately $3 million for various projects through Metro Parks, a regional park improvement program administered by the Metropolitan Council, said park lobbyist Brian Rice. It would have received $250,000 for "the missing link," the final connection in the city's Grand Rounds trail system, between East River Road and Stinson Boulevard on the city's Northeast side.

The Park Board also lost a chance at its $5 million request to finish a $10.2 million project to renovate Lake of the Isles, its top bonding priority.

The money would pay for bridge repair, parkway improvements, and shoreline and path work on the north arm and south shore, Rice said. The project appeared to be in good shape: the Senate had $2.5 million for Lake of the Isles; the House had $2 million when the Legislature adjourned.

"We are like everyone else," Dziedzic said. "We didn't fare too well."

Jim Grathwol, Minneapolis School District lobbyist, said the session's only major education bill created new science and social studies standards.

"They actually worked out a compromise," he said. "That may be the only positive thing you could say about this session."

Reporter Bob Gilbert contributed to this story.