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December 15, 2003 // UPDATED 11:09 am - April 30, 2007
By: Skyway News editorial staff
Skyway News editorial staff

Government related news going on in, and about the Downtown Minneapolis Area.

Who sells booze to minors? City reveals who's naughty, nice By Scott Russell

Downtown bars, restaurants and liquor stores sold alcohol to underage patrons 17 percent of the time during recent city-monitored compliance checks, city data said.

The compliance checks included 71 Downtown-area on- and off-sale liquor establishments, and 12 failed.

Downtown establishments failed compliance checks at a slightly higher rate than the citywide 15 percent fail rate.

The citywide fail rate was the best performance since the program began in 1998, when 47 percent failed, according to the 2003 Youth Access to Alcohol Compliance Report. The numbers have improved each year.

"Proactive compliance checks of licensed beverage alcohol retailers have been a major component of organized efforts to prevent youth access to alcohol in Minneapolis," it said.

The Minneapolis Police License Investigation Division presented the report to the City Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee Dec. 3.

In 2000, the Council directed licensing staff to randomly check each alcohol retailer at least once every two years the report said. Those that fail get checked annually for two years.

Lt. Phil Hafvenstein, commander of the License Investigation Division, proposed 2004 changes that would target establishments that fail a check.

Licensing staff would recheck establishments that fail within 30 to 60 days, under the new plan. It would place less emphasis on checking establishments that have passed two consecutive compliance checks in the past four years. Licensing staff would do random checks of 25 percent of well-performing businesses annually instead of the current 55 percent.

The compliance check report gives a low-end estimate of how easily underage youth get alcohol in the city. City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) told committee members that youth most typically get alcohol from adults -- their parents or older college friends -- not direct sales from bars, restaurants or liquor stores.

Hafvenstein said the compliance check process was "unequivocally fair." The legal drinking age is 21, but the city's youth decoys are ages 18 and 19, not 20. The licensing staff prohibits decoys from using tricks that underage drinkers might try.

"They will not have fake ID and will present their own valid identification if asked for one," according to materials sent to liquor license holders. "The minors will be instructed to respond truthfully to questions and will not be allowed to trick, deceive or lie about their age."

Minority youth decoys were twice as likely as their white counterparts to get served a drink, 25 percent versus 13 percent, according to the 2003 report. Hafvenstein said he could not explain why the race gap existed but said that it is narrowing compared to previous years.

Businesses that fail a compliance check get a $500 administrative fine for the first offense in a 24-month period, a $1,000 fine for the second violation and a $2,000 fine for the third

violation. Establishments with four violations in a two-year period get referred to the Council for action.

City to scrutinize tax-exempt properties Facing tight budgets, the city will take a harder look at tax-exempt property to make sure it qualifies for the free pass.

Nonprofits -- many headquartered Downtown -- often pay no property taxes, but City Assessor Scott Renne predicts more will have to pony up.

"Something that might have qualified unquestionably 10 years ago -- their source of funds and activities -- may have changed so that we may have to update our files and our analysis," he said. "I don't doubt there could be properties that were exempt that have become taxable."

In December, the City Council heard Renne's plan to review 500 of the city's 7,000 tax-exempt properties in 2004.

Some tax-exempt properties, such as the University of Minnesota or nonprofit hospitals, are not worth reviewing because their use doesn't change. Other property had what Renne called "soft exemptions" that may change as the land use changes.

Church-owned homes are one example, he said.

"A parsonage is an exempt use," Renne said. "If you want your building engineer to live in a house and that is part of his or her pay, that is not an exempt use."

Another example are church-owned vacant lots, he said. The land is tax-exempt for a specific expansion project, but not if the church bankrolls it long-term, as a land speculator might.

The City Assessor's staff has shrunk over the years; roughly five years ago, the person who reviewed tax-exempt property full time was cut, Renne said. The job is now split among several staff.

He said because of competing demands, the review could be a thorough tax-exempt analysis or it could be -- "yep we got it, yep we will extend it for another three years and throw it in the file.

"I don't have a belief that we are looking at things in a systematic and comprehensive way like we hope to do."

He did not estimate how much money the review might generate. However, he said, "If we figure that there are ways we can grow the tax base within the framework of state law, we will do it to the best of our ability."

-- Scott Russell

A more efficient city? Just dial 311 The city of Minneapolis is preparing to launch the 311 phone system -- a 911 companion for nonemergency calls about such things as pothole and graffiti complaints.

The system would take some of the burden off the 911 operators and improve city tracking and response to citizen calls, said Karl Kaiser, head of the city's Business Information System.

Eighteen cities already have the 311 systems, including Chicago, New York City, Houston and Baltimore, he said. Minneapolis should have its own ready in a year to 18 months.

The federal government is helping pay with a $300,000 grant. The Homeland Security and Justice departments are encouraging cities to start the 311 systems, he said.

"Do you recall the sniper incident in the Washington, D.C. area?" Kaiser asked. "When they got to the investigative stage of that terrible incident, they requested input from the citizenry. That clogged down their 911 system."

In Minneapolis, 30 to 35 percent of 911 calls are nonemergency, so diverting them to a 311 system would help in a crisis.

The 311 system's underpinning is a software package that tracks citizen requests and triggers work orders, Kaiser said. Once it's running, a citizen could call 311 with a pothole complaint, he said. The operator would validate the address, makes sure it had no duplicate complaints for the same pothole, and get a work order to the Traffic Department.

"We need to have a common approach to all service requests, regardless of whether they come by phone, by Web or by counter service," he said. "The process behind the scenes ought to be the same so we don't trip over each other."

Over time, the city could develop standards -- for example, a three-day turn-around on pothole complaints, he said. Then the city could acknowledge the complaints and give citizens a date by which they could expect a response.

"It will improve service delivery to the citizens significantly," Kaiser said.

The Public Works Department and the mayor's office will test the system before it goes citywide, he said. -- Scott Russell