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Park Board to spend up to $500,000 on tunnel study

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: October 1, 2014 - 9:33 PM

Minneapolis park officials will spend up to $500,000 to hire engineering talent they hope will find that a Southwest light-rail tunnel is a reasonable alternative to a new bridge at the Kenilworth channel.

The Park and Recreation Board voted 5-2 Wednesday night to authorize the engineering study in hopes of challenging the project's environmental studies, potentially suing for their alternative.

The board voted after outside attorney Byron Starns told park commissioners that they need to spend more money on engineering expertise rather than lawyers for now. But he assured the board that it is is in a solid position to challenge the proposed Kenilworth bridge if it can show that a tunnel beneath the 101-year-old channel is feasible.

Under federal law, park officials hold a trump card in that they must consent that a federally funded transportation project has only a minimal impact before it can proceed.  The same law authorizes taking parkland only if there's no feasible and prudent alternative.

The studies authorized Wednesday are intended to determine whether a tunnel is technically feasible and to provide a closer estimate of its cost.

The dissenting votes came from commissioners Brad Bourn and Steffanie Musich, who merely wanted the board to follow its usual process of waiting two weeks for public notice for a vote before drawing down $500,000 from its reserves. But park staff argued that haste is necessary to make detailed findings ready when a supplemental environmental impact statement for the project is released early next year.

The board has voiced objections since late 2012 to putting freight and transit rail service and recreational trails on a bridge over the channel dredged in 1913 between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. It has an easement for the channel running under the bridge.

Jennifer Ringgold, a planning supervisor, showed the board drawings of the existing and proposed bridges that showed the width of the crossing growing from 45 to 85 feet. The proposed crossing would actually consist of two bridges, one for freight and the other shared by transit and people using bike and foot trails. There would be a narrow gap between them.

The board voted Sept. 17 to hire outside legal help for $22,000 to evaluate its options for fighting the proposed crossing.  Key officials got a briefing Monday, and met Wednesday with Metro Council officials, while drafting the resolutions to hire engineering help mere hours before the meeting.

A Metro Council e-mail received by the park Superintendent Jayne Miller minutes before the meeting said that completion of the required approval process by cities along the 16-mile route and preliminary engineering set the stage for the required analysis of parkland impacts. But Miller said there was no indication that the council is prepared to do the detailed engineering analysis of the tunnel that the Park Board says is needed to determine if that option is reasonable.

The council said in a statement after the meeting: "The Southwest Project Office has been working with the Park Board for the last two years and is committed to continuing to work with them on the landscape design of the Kenilworth Corridor, the design of the bridge over the channel and the design of the Penn, 21st and West Lake Stations."  

State raids Community Action of Minneapolis; employees laid off

Posted by: Alejandra Matos Updated: September 26, 2014 - 11:59 AM

Community Action of Minneapolis laid off its employees and is no longer accepting energy assistance applications after state officials raided its offices Friday morning.

About a dozen Department of Commerce and Department of Human Services officials, including its lead auditor, showed up as the nonprofit organization was opening its doors, warrant in hand, to obtain all of the organization's financial records.

The Star Tribune first reported Sunday that a new state audit concluded that leaders of the organization misspent more than $800,000 on trips, golf, spa visits and even a personal car loan for its chief executive.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said these practices contributed to poor outcomes for the agency’s clients.

“Our first priority must be to ensure that low-income people in Minneapolis and other parts of Hennepin County are getting the help they need,” Jesson said. “The state’s action will make sure these Minnesotans have services that will help their families improve their lives and ensure basic needs are met, especially with the cold winter months around the corner.”

Gov. Mark Dayton supported the action by the two agencies.

“The governor believes the Departments of Commerce and Human Services are acting properly," said Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson.

The state immediately ended all contracts with the organization and vowed to collect any misspent tax money.

Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman is working to ensure those who need heating assistance will get it. 

“The Commerce Department has taken the urgent steps necessary to ensure Minneapolis residents get heating and weatherization assistance as winter approaches,” said Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. “We are immediately transitioning the Energy Assistance and Weatherization Programs from Community Action of Minneapolis to neighboring community action agencies. This will preserve our services to Minneapolis residents.”

Community Action chief executive Bill Davis could not immediately be reached for comment. The organization provides weatherization, heating assistance and career counseling.

Minnesota Community Action Partnership, the umbrella group for the state's community action organizations, said the raid is a crucial and needed turning point.

“Local Community Action agencies are good government institutions," said Arnie Anderson, head of Minnesota Community Action Partnership. "Now, we can get this fixed. It will be better than ever. “ 

By 11 a.m., Community Action of Minneapolis employees were told to go home.

"We've been laid off," said Leslie Powell, a staffer. "I walk to work every day and I care about my community."

Staff posted a sign on Community Action's window saying they would not be taking energy assistance applications until further notice.

Cedric Gibbs and Anita Nunn had their energy assistance application in hand when they saw the sign.

Gibbs is disabled and has received assistance in the past.

Anita Nunn also showed up to complete her application.

"I should have brought everything with me," Nunn said. "Yesterday they acted like everything was okay."

Council cuts food-liquor ratio rule

Posted by: Erin Golden Updated: September 19, 2014 - 11:55 AM

A city ordinance requiring some restaurants outside of downtown to maintain a careful balance of their food and alcohol sales has been scrapped by the Minneapolis City Council.

The council voted 12-0 Friday to overhaul the rules governing alcohol sales for restaurants located along commercial corridors like Uptown. Those restaurants had been required to ensure that at least 60 percent of their revenues came from food sales, and to cap alcohol sales at 40 percent. Council members said the popularity of higher-priced craft and local beer, wine and cocktails had made it almost impossible for businesses to comply with the rule.

Now, those businesses won't have to follow a food and beverage ratio. Instead, the city will employ new tactics aimed at ensuring the restaurants don't lead to problems in their neighborhoods. Restaurants will now follow new rules about the hours in which they must serve food, provide specific alcohol service training, and risk losing their entertainment license if problems crop up. 

Council Member Cam Gordon said he's aware of some neighborhoods' concerns that changing the rules could lead to problems from customers who have to much to drink. But he said he believes the city has provided enough checks and balances to avoid trouble.

"I challenge all the restaurants and all the bars and all the city regulators to prove how this is going to be better," he said. "And we're going to end up with less issues, and fewer problems."

A proposal for a similar change for restaurants tucked further into neighborhoods will be put to voters this November. Those restaurants are currently required to make 70 percent of their sales from food and limit alcohol sales to 30 percent. 

Separately, the council voted 12-0 to approve a change to the rules for business' restrooms. Now, businesses operating in the city will be allowed to have gender-neutral, single-user restrooms, rather than being required to have separate restrooms for men and women.

Council Member Andrew Johnson, who introduced the change, said the requirement sometimes proved to be a burden for businesses. He said restrooms not limited to a particular gender allows for more flexibility for families and an option for transgender customers. 

City board clears tax levy hike

Posted by: Erin Golden Updated: September 17, 2014 - 5:05 PM

Mayor Betsy Hodges' proposed 2.4 percent property tax levy increase cleared a first hurdle Wednesday, winning the approval of the city's Board of Estimate and Taxation.

The board, which has members from the City Council, Park and Recreation Board, along with Minneapolis residents, considers changes to the levy before they are forwarded on to the council for approval. Hodges' plan calls for the tax levy to bring in an additional $6.7 million, for a total of $288 million.

Most of that money would be spent on debt payments for a stepped-up street repair program implemented by former Mayor R.T. Rybak. The impact of the levy increase will vary; an analysis presented to the board showed about 57 percent of properties will end up with a smaller tax bill, while 43 percent will pay more.

"More than half of this proposed increase is simply to account for inflation," Hodges said in a statement. "Even with this modest increase, half of Minneapolis' residential properties will see no increase -- or will even see a decrease -- in the City portion of their property taxes."

Phillips apartment stymies developers

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: September 11, 2014 - 5:48 PM

It looks handsome on the outside, but let developers into the onetime luxury apartment building at 628 E. Franklin Av, and they shy away from taking on this rehab project.

The job of making the gutted 1904 building habitable again for the first time in 18 years attracted only one offer when the city asked developers for proposals.  That offer will likely be rejected because it doesn't meet the city's financial terms, according to Cherie Shoquist, a city project coordinator.

But she said the city hasn't given up hope for bringing the hard-luck building it owns back to life, although she was surprised there wasn't more interest.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful building that we thought the time was right for," she said.

One reason she's still optimistic is that one contractor might have bid on the project but for a cash-flow crunch caused by a delay in closing on the sale of a duplex he's selling. Charlie Browning said he's not surprised others shied away.

“There’s not a whole lot of people like myself that are ambitious about restoration work," he said. "When you walk in there and see a few dead pigeons and a dead hawk and you don’t have a vision.it's a little intimidating.”

The structure was built as luxury apartments, but has fallen since on hard times. It sits not far from the 5th Avenue S. freeway entrance, between the major commuting routes of Portland and Park avenues.

The city in essence bought the building in 2012 from the Sabri family trust after Azzam Sabri, the building’s most recent owner, died of cancer in 2011. The purchase went through the Twin Cities Community Land Bank as an intermediary. Sabri got the building after a court fight with previous owner Jason Geschwind, to whom he provided financing.

The development agency insisted that he follow through with Geschwind’s commitment to create condos. Sabri wanted to switch to commercial reuse, but ignored the city’s requests for details on financing, marketing and other specifics.

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