A referendum of sorts in Savage

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 2011 - 2:09 PM

A City Hall insider seeking a council seat launches a far-ranging critique of how the community is being run.

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Proposed Savage athletics dome

Savage is staging an awkward election this fall.

Everyone is professing to be friends. The challenger, Joe Julius, isn't attacking anyone by name, and one of the incumbents speaks of being "sad" to be pitted against him.

"I respect the guy an awful lot," said Council Member Al McColl. "I'm running and I don't want to lose; but if I lose to him, the city hasn't lost anything. He would fit in well."

Yet Julius, vying to unseat McColl or the other incumbent, Christine Kelly, is volleying shell after shell at City Hall:

High taxes. Municipal liquor sales heading "into the toilet." Ignoring community sentiment. Loss of precious woodlands for the sake of developers. A risky proposal for a fancy new sports dome.

The list goes on and on.

And what must really sting is it's all coming from a well-informed insider -- a man whom the city has turned to for assistance when something gets prickly.

It's enough to put incumbents on edge.

"I've lived here all my life and care deeply about this city and I don't like seeing negative images portrayed," said Mayor Janet Williams, settling into lunch at the Savage Depot, a once-struggling, city-partnered coffee shop and bistro in a historic train station downtown.

"Look at this right here," she adds, raising her voice a bit to be heard above the din of a happy crowd of customers. "And the farmers market we now have outside here has become incredible. Did you know the parking lot they use was gravel eight years ago? Now people are complaining that on Friday and Saturday nights downtown they have no place to park! Isn't that a wonderful problem to have?"

In short, the mayor says: yes, we tax -- for things people use and like. She herself faces no challenger this fall -- a first in the city for any mayor in 14 years.

As for Julius, adds the peppery-yet-grandmotherly mayor, precisely because he has been an insider, his own fingerprints are all over some of the decisions he's now questioning.

To that, Julius pleads guilty -- to a point. And, he adds with a loud, cheerful laugh: "Oooh, things are getting nasty! This could be fun."

ISSUE 1: HIGH TAXES

"Three things I'm hammering on," Julius said. "First is the high tax rate: 29 percent higher than Shakopee, 31 percent higher than Prior Lake, 21 percent higher than Burnsville. When I tell people that, they say they didn't realize it was that high!"

Incumbents offer a two-part response. First, the tax rate is only part of the picture. Prior Lake, with its miniscule commercial tax base stemming in part from its distance from major highways, benefits hugely from regional tax-base sharing, raking in the better part of $1 million a year, vastly more than does Savage. It also has far higher franchise fees, a left-handed tax.

They also defend what folks get for the money. Said McColl: "Are we highly taxed? Sure we are. We're probably still paying for our fast growth. But to cut now is either to cut emergency services, or plowing, or streets. Streets need to be fixed; we can't let them get into disarray. Once they're totaled, they have to be completely rebuilt, and it's either $1,400 [per home] now or $5,000 in five years."

ISSUE 2: SCOPE OF GOVERNMENT

The city is putting taxpayers at risk, Julius says, by repeatedly becoming a player in the private market. He contends that:

Now that major discount liquor operators have moved in nearby, and its municipal liquor proceeds are drying up, the city should bail on that line of business, lest it end up subsidizing sales of booze.

Related to that, because the city proposes to rely on those very proceeds in case worse comes to worse, the city shouldn't become financial guarantor of a proposed athletics dome in a city park. If the private sector isn't willing to take that risk, there's a reason: once Savage starts to age, usage and the bottom line could crumble.

The city shouldn't be negotiating with the U.S. Postal Service for a sale and leaseback of the post office's quarters on the municipal campus. That makes it a competitor in a property market now studded with empty spaces.

Here, the response from incumbents is slightly less uniform.

The mayor and McColl agree that the two liquor stores are still spinning off modest profit, and believe it's possible to streamline operations. They also agree that it's wise for the city to keep control of the post office space within its own the municipal campus.

"We hear from a lot of residents who won't be vocal about it, but they don't want to lose their post office," McColl said. "It's already an identity crisis not to have our own high school [Savage shares with Prior Lake]; they don't want to lose this."

On the dome, not yet voted on, the mayor says she's waiting for more information. McColl is opposed: "No Teflon bubble belongs in one of our pristine parks. But I could be the Lone Ranger on that one."

ISSUE 3: DOES THE CITY LISTEN?

Julius hopes to attract support from citizens furious about two recent council decisions, namely approval of:

Village Commons, a proposal to put apartments and townhomes, some of the latter for rent, on a site along County Rd. 42 that had been targeted for stores; and

SS-9, wiping out part of a high-quality patch of woodland near the high school to create a road.

But Julius, said Williams, as a member of the city's Economic Development Commission, approved of both. "I rely heavily on those recommendations," she said.

That confuses two very different roles, Julius said.

"The commission's job is to provide sources of revenue to the city," he said. Village Commons adds tax base; SS-9 was a winner in a purely dollars-and-cents sense, creating access to an important site at lower cost. "However, an elected council puts on a totally different hat: they have to ask, 'what is the will of the people? What do people want?' Citizens were extremely vocal in expressing displeasure with both. This is not a flip-flop, it's a question of roles."

Said Williams: "I can't remember any project we ever did that people didn't complain about." If every group of opponents automatically had veto power, she said, "We would have nothing here. Nothing."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

  • SAVAGE CANDIDATE FORUM

    When: Wednesday, Oct. 26, 7-9 p.m.

    Where: Savage City Hall council chambers

    Featuring: Challenger Joe Julius and council incumbents Christine Kelly (seeking her second term) and Al McColl (seeking his third term), vying for two council seats. Also, Mayor Janet Williams, who is running unopposed for a third term on the council, her second as mayor.

    Note: The forum is expected to be televised locally, re-telecast and web-streamed.

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