The powers that be in Savage were thrilled this summer to learn that on a national ranking of the nation's best small cities, theirs had jumped from 51st place to 21st, making them one of just three Minnesota communities among the top 50.
But the fall elections for city council in Savage are shaping up as a test of how happy the residents are with some of the very points raised by Money magazine.
There are four outside challengers for two council seats, ranging from longtime residents to new arrivals, and they are raising questions about the way the city does business, from its $5 million sports dome to its ownership and investments in a restored downtown train station.
"I noticed that Chanhassen finished way above us, even though its taxes aren't as high," said candidate Chuck Boisvert. "Apparently you don't have to tax as much as we do to be a liveable city."
In the last election, some of the same issues were raised — and in a tough, spirited way by a man with inside knowledge. The incumbents prevailed. So it's not clear that the majority of residents are all that displeased. Surveys, too, have suggested that lots of taxpayers wouldn't mind more amenities, even if it costs more.
The general election is Nov. 5, pitting six can-
didates for two seats — those held by Gene Abbott didates for two seats — those held by Gene Abbott and Jane Victorey, who are both in the running.
Among the issues challengers are bringing up:
The Savage council was clearly skeptical when youth sports activists came to them seeking city financial guarantees for a $5 million seasonal sports dome. But in the end they did approve it, and Money magazine singled it out as a new civic amenity.
But the challengers are uneasy about the venture.
"We've been told that the sports dome will pay for itself," candidate Jeremy Seykora said. "If that is the case, why didn't private investors make it happen on their own? Why were taxpayer dollars needed? These sports facilities have shown to be a boondoggle in cities all over the state."
Candidate Josh Welter is concerned to hear reports that the Burnsville School District is considering building its own dome and reaching out to youth sports groups, saying existing domes are full. Edina is also mulling the idea, and if this proliferation continues, he said, the financial structure of the project could weaken.
"I would reach out to Burnsville and say, 'Hey, we have one not far from you, let's work on the traffic lights on 42 so you're not stopping for every one,' and have them use ours."
Incumbent Victorey said she voted against the project and shares some of the same concerns, but added: "It's here now and we need to do all we can do to make it work."
Savage has had a higher tax rate than its suburban neighbors, and that is a perennial source of attack.
"Fiscal responsibility is my top priority for the city," Seykora said. "I want to ensure that Savage does not find itself in a position to have to burden residents with higher taxes. With an economy that continues to crawl along, taxpayers need as much relief as possible."
Boisvert's point about Chanhassen's lofty national ranking, fourth, and its lower taxes, is correct, according to the state auditor's database, which runs to 2011. Savage's per capita tax levy of about $488 that year ranked 38th of 226 bigger Minnesota cities, while Chanhassen's $396 was 81st. Chanhassen spends more for current operations, but Savage is burdened with much more debt.
Victorey said the council is aware of that and is studying ways to deal with it, even as the debt load is on a gradual downslope. She cautioned against comparing any two cities, as "each has its own structure. The question is whether residents are happy with what they have — that's what's really important."
There's a growing willingness among civic leaders in Scott County, Savage included, to support bringing the county into the metro area's sales tax collections for major transit improvements.
They say the county risks being left out of a growing system of interconnected transitways, to its long-term detriment, though they admit it's a challenge politically because at-home improvements are likely to come many years out. The Savage challengers are mostly opposed.
"Absolutely not," Seykora said. Added Welter, "That would not benefit Scott County. Our taxes are high enough. Let's keep it in Scott County and do a better job."
Incumbent Victorey said she wouldn't support the idea unless it did represent a real improvement. "If you can bring in a higher tax base through better transportation, it pays for itself; I need to see how it will be used."
"What happened there was a disaster," Welter said of the summer's road and bridge work on Hwy. 169. "A real big mess. You'd think we'd have a little more idea of what was coming and plan quite a bit better for that."
Victorey said that wasn't essentially a city issue, and here Seykora agreed; he doesn't know what the city could have done.
"If you're going to have roadwork, you're going to have congestion," he said. "I do question whether some of the projects were necessary. We're spending an awful lot of money for quite marginal gains."
The city has been proactive in trying to invest in revitalizing its historic downtown, whose quaintness drew praise from the magazine. But some candidates are suspicious of the spending, including upgrades to the much-prized Savage Depot to help a new tenant after two previous attempts to operate coffee shops and the like failed.
"The business owners and residents of that area should be able to do with [downtown] as they choose," Seykora said. "The government shouldn't be involved." Boisvert said he suspects there's a subsidy at the Depot that isn't fair to other restaurants in the area.
Victorey said the city's Depot fund is running a big deficit, but it's a separate fund that doesn't affect the overall budget and the city hopes to whittle the deficit through a new long-term lease. "Investing in downtown has a ripple effect that brings new vibrancy," she said.