The City Council in Shakopee has launched an unusual exercise aimed at defining what it wants the city to become, and how it wants to get there.
Mayor Brad Takbe calls it a “freewheeling” effort to “discuss, to talk, to get ideas and concepts out there as a body — what do we want to, and what do we want the staff to, focus time, energy and money on?”
Other cities do similar things, but not always with TV cameras rolling and not always in ways that invite members of the public to chime in.
The first outing, earlier this month, revealed that for all the well-publicized success the city has enjoyed in attracting new jobs, there is uneasiness around the use of tax and other incentives.
There’s concern, too, about a lagging downtown area and the problem of ear-piercing train whistles as a threat to quality of life and to the potential for landing major new residential development nearby.
“That noise carries to three-quarters of the town,” said newly elected Council Member Mike Luce. “I live seven blocks away and it wakes me in summer when the windows are open, and I even notice it in the winter.”
Others pointed out that the issue has been studied in the past, and the cures, such as closed-off roads, turned out to be worse than the disease.
The two new council members, Luce and Kathi Mocol, were bound to be a particular focus. Mocol spoke of concerns about downtown vacancies, and Luce voiced unease with the prolific tax abatements used to attract new jobs.
“We need a set of rules to meet, some criteria,” he said. “From my understanding, there’s nothing out there.”
Veteran Council Member Matt Lehman, a critic in the past, agreed.
“In my mind,” he said, “they are a last-resort tool, and when the economy is flying high, I don’t know that we would offer [incentives] unless a super deal were coming here. It’s almost like it’s a mindset of, it’s a permanent thing, all the time.”
Tabke said a process is underway to develop guidelines, but that he feels the city has moved wisely. The most important issue, he said: “High-wage jobs.”
The city’s finance director, Julie Linnihan, moderated, and at times weighed in — as when Lehman warned against council micromanagement in domains in which the staff needed to lead.
For instance, decaying roads are a growing problem for many cities, and Lehman opined that that’s all about engineering knowledge.
“We need to rely on our engineer to use his expertise to say, ‘Do these and then these roads.’ He knows the age of the roads, how deep the cracks are, etc., and for me to set policy is micromanaging. He needs to bring us the priorities based on his findings.”
Linnihan warned that she was going to play “devil’s advocate” in responding:
“You don’t want to micromanage, but you also want to set a flat dollar amount,” vs. ramping up taxes to cover growing needs.
“What if, in doing that, you are deferring [the problem] to the next generation?”
“It hasn’t always been the history of this council to do what he said to do … He for a long time has been promoting ‘more money,’ pushing hard for more money for street reconstruction,” while getting pushback from fiscal conservatives because it “increases the levy.”
Tabke stressed that the opening discussion is just one of many to come, and wasn’t intended to be the last word on the plan the council reaches.
“It’s going to be a long-term, consistent process. We’re going to, through the end of March, take public input, with stuff on the website, what projects, what tasks, do people want Shakopee to work on, and then over two years we develop overarching policies to guide things.”
One result, he added: “To be able to say at the end of the year, ‘These are the things we got done, these are concrete outcomes.’ ”
In the meantime, “we should revisit this quarterly, every quarter have a work session in which we have another discussion like this.”