DULUTH – Mayor Emily Larson wants Duluth to be "the greenest city in the country" and to create the "most trusted public safety department in the state."
"And it's our next task to do the work needed to ensure our [pandemic] recovery is better than what came before," she said during Monday night's State of the City address. "We can create a better normal. A fairer normal. A more just normal, more equitable, sustainable and connected than ever before."
Larson unveiled a number of new initiatives during her address and alluded to the $60 million in federal coronavirus relief money city leaders are still deciding how to spend. Here are a few of the major policy announcements from the mayor's speech:
'Community policing 2.0'
Last month the Duluth Branch NAACP called on the Duluth Police Department to bring use of force and arrest rates in line with local demographics by the end of 2022. White residents comprise 90% of the city's population, but half of all use-of-force incidents involved people of color last year. Three years of arrest data also show Black and Indigenous residents are arrested at disproportionately high rates.
"I've directed our Police Department to engage with our community in a top to bottom racial bias audit to identify problems and areas we need to address in our approach to policing," Larson said Monday in announcing a "community policing 2.0" initiative. "It will take us years to build and earn the trust that is required. It will be worth it."
The mayor also wants the department to be the first in the state to earn Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies accreditation, which she called "the platinum standard for best practice policing rooted in community trust."
Housing trust fund
Larson proposed starting a $2 million affordable housing trust fund to "help rehab or renovate dilapidated units to make them livable, develop infill sites and support accessory dwellings on existing properties," she said. The goal would be to work with foundations and others to grow the fund beyond $4 million.
In recent years the city has given away land to spur development and has seen a number of new apartment projects pop up.
About 55% of Duluth renters pay more than the recommended 30% of income on rent, according to the census, and single-family homes are hard to find and getting more expensive.
"Affordable housing removes a critical barrier to an equitable and thriving community," Larson said.
Larson proposed $1 million in federal coronavirus relief money go toward recruiting new broadband providers.
She criticized the largest local provider in the city, Spectrum, for raising prices in the past year and keeping residents "held hostage" as many have no other options for internet service providers at home. "This is unacceptable," she said. "Personally, I feel it's immoral."
Spectrum responded Tuesday by saying service "is available in the overwhelming majority of the city, at starting speeds of 100 Mbps with nationally consistent pricing and no data caps, modem fees or contracts."
"We offer a low-cost broadband service to eligible families and seniors for just $17.99/month — and it has been available in Duluth for four years," the company said.
Other communities, including Hermantown, have started looking toward federal relief money to increase broadband access. Across the bay, Superior recently completed a study looking at the feasibility of creating a city-run broadband network that could also draw on coronavirus funds to cover startup costs.
A smartphone app is being developed that would allow residents to send in complaints about streetlights, potholes, plowing problems or other city issues. A staffed 311 phone line will follow next year, Larson said.
"Our goal is to make interacting with the city and city services as seamless and accessible as possible," she said.
Several Duluth City Council members recently proposed declaring a climate emergency and directing the city to draw up a plan to drastically reduce emissions.
On Monday, Larson said Duluth should be looking at its "large blocks of city land, old industrial sites, brown fields and other locations" to start producing more renewable energy.
"My goal, and I am confident we'll achieve it, is for Duluth to have a large-scale solar array in the next three years."
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496