Stillwater Patch recently submitted the following questions to all four of the candidates running for seats on the Stillwater City Council. The candidates were asked to keep their responses below 350 words each.
Here are the answers provided by Ward 2 Candidate Ted Kozlowski:
Browns Creek Trail
The Brown’s Creek Trail will have an obvious impact on the future of Stillwater, but the DNR has stated there is not enough funding to complete the trail. If elected, would you push to get the trails completed sooner or later? How would you go about doing that? Would you see this as a prudent use of city funds to hire a lobbyist?
I love the idea of the Brown’s Creek Trail. I’ve spoken with the DNR and it is my understanding the DNR does not have sufficient funding to completely develop the Brown’s Creek Trail in one fell swoop. The current thinking is that the DNR would develop the trail corridor in phases, based on available funding. Initially, the trail would be paved between the Stillwater Depot and Brown’s Creek Park at Neal Avenue next summer. The bridge over Hwy 95 would be rehabilitated and a bridge over the creek itself near Oak Glen Golf Course would be replaced during (or before) this initial phase as well. However, funds for paving the remainder of the trail between Neal Avenue and Duluth Junction, and constructing a grade-separated crossing (e.g. a bridge) over Manning Avenue, are not currently available.
I would like to see the project completed sooner rather than later but we need to work with the DNR to determine when this project would be completed based on their timeframe and budgeting process. I’m not sure a lobbyist would be necessary at this point.
Levy Project Funding
The levy project in Lowell Park has been going on for years. The Army Corps of Engineers have recently said they will begin the final phase next spring. The city has said it will go with the Army Corps plan now, but if ground isn’t broken by next spring, they will consider doing the project internally. City staff states the project can be completed cheaper if the city does the work. If this project is delayed again, would you support working with the Corps to complete the project, or having city staff work on it? Why?
This project has been delayed for a very long time. Even though Congress approved funds for our project, funding was appropriated after the Fargo floods in 1997 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Now we have hurricane Sandy. These delays have cost the city substantially by delaying our own downtown projects. The Army Corps of Engineers has stated that we are set to begin construction again in 2013. I would say this is their last chance before we go it alone. I would stress the need to complete the project quickly to protect against physical damage from flooding. The city has estimated that we can do this project internally, without the corps assistance for $500,000 vs. working with the corps where our cost would be between $300,000-$400,000. So there is a savings associated with working with them but I’m not sure it’s worth it if this keeps getting delayed. Let’s hope they start on time in 2013 and finish this up.
Employee Health and Retirement Benefits
What is your position on the city paying for employee health and retirement benefits? Do you believe the city should continue to pay 100 percent of the benefits or negotiate for greater employee participation?
First, the city should keep the promises it made to its employees in the past. Currently the city only pays 100% of the employees’ health care, not 100% for their spouse and/or family. The out of pocket cost for a city employee to provide insurance for their family is $450-$650 monthly. Further these costs to our city employees are anticipated to rise by a few hundred dollars each month starting next year. I would argue that these benefits are in line with the private sector for full time salaried employees. Also, these benefits don’t carry past employment so we no longer insure our city workers and their families for life. I think our benefits package is fair & in line with the private sector and other municipalities. Our city employees, police & fire are a very important part of our community and the safety we enjoy as residents. I would want to ensure that we remain competitive and continue to hire great people to work for our community. If the city wants to look at this issue (for a potential cut or increase) they should open up the entire budget to see that all of their expenses are in line with similar situated municipalities.
Residents have raised concerns about an increase in distressed housing in Stillwater. Do you see distressed homes as an issue in Stillwater, and if so, how would you go about addressing it?
After knocking on many of the doors in Ward 2, one of the main concerns I've heard from residents is about "distressed & abandoned" properties. These properties are falling into disrepair, becoming safety and fire hazards and they are dragging down surrounding property values. This can often cost us taxpayers, who bear the costs of police calls and unpaid property taxes. I've been investigating different ways for the public/city to recoup some of these costs. One way would involve a new legal requirement that bank owned vacant or abandoned property be registered with the City (pay a fee), as is done in many other cities. At that point, if they remain vacant and are not maintained the City could issue fines that would defer the cost of these bank owned properties while offering incentive to keep them maintained. My concern is that I don’t want to make these properties more difficult to sell. My fear is that banks will just try to pass any fines/fees to the potential buyer and our main goal should be to get people to buy these homes, not to sit vacant. It’s also important to point out that this is a nationwide problem and I would want to survey other municipalities to see what does and does not work before we move forward.
With the chicken and bee ordinances came discussion about the enforcement of scofflaws. How would you suggest addressing issues that may arise with the enforcement of noise, problem properties ordinances and the various provisions written into ordinances such as keeping bees and backyard chickens?
Code enforcement is an issue in Stillwater. It’s one I would like to see addressed in the short term. From the research I’ve done it seems that adding staff to enforce our city codes can be revenue neutral. These positions can pay for themselves with the fees & fines levied against violations. I don’t want a huge staff of people running around Stillwater fining people, but we have issues with properties, noise and several other issues that can only be addressed through enforcement. Having well written and well thought out city ordinances are useless without enforcement.
Dog Park / Swimming Pool
There are groups in Stillwater trying to gain city support for an off-leash dog park and a municipal pool. If elected, how would you address these two proposals? Are you in favor of a dog park? A municipal pool? Why or why not?
I’m in favor of a pool and off-leash dog park in Stillwater. I think these would be great amenities for our community. That said I don’t think the city is in a position to fund these projects in their entirety. We’ve done great things in Stillwater when the city and private groups work together to raise money, provide incentives and share resources to move Stillwater forward. I think if done right, we could easily make these projects a reality while being cost neutral over the long term.
What do you think about city spending? How would you work to keep amenities and services residents want and expect up to par while managing a budget? What areas would you consider cutting? Is there any circumstance in which you’d be in favor of increasing city budgets?
I’ve spent many hours poring over our auditor’s reports and city finances. We are an amenity rich city that provides a very high level to service for its residents. Overall our city is in pretty good shape financially. I’m not for raising property taxes and right now our city has no problem paying for its core services. It’s the “nice to have” projects that can get us into trouble. I don’t foresee any circumstances that would force us to cut our core services in order to maintain property taxes. Going forward we need to define the difference between “wants” and “needs” and make sure we are taking care of what we need to provide our residents as well as prioritizing our “wants”.
There are other ways to increase revenue for the city that don’t involve raising resident’s taxes. We have a couple of TIF districts that will be coming back on the city’s tax rolls over the next couple of years that will increase our revenue. We also have opportunities for economic development within our industrial park and other parts of the city that could provide more revenue. I take this position very seriously and will work to ensure that we have a sensible budget while maintaining our quality of life in Stillwater.
Police Department Expansion
With the proposal to move the fire station to the new armory location, there is talk about expanding the police department into the fire station space. If elected, would you support expanding the police department? If so, how would you suggest paying for it?
I’ve spoken with Chief of Police John Gannaway about this issue and it’s his position that the cost of expanding into the former fire station would be relatively low. They may have to add a few walls & secure doors but he does not see any significant cost in taking advantage of the additional needed space.
New Liquor License Ordinance
The city council is currently considering an amendment to tighten the city’s liquor ordinance in an attempt to “improve conduct” at Stillwater bars. How would you propose the city moves forward with this issue?
I’m against any vague legislation or ordinances that aim to “improve the conduct” of our citizens & visitors. I don’t want to move away from the idea of personal responsibility. There are already strong penalties for bars and restaurants that over-serve, serve to minors and criminal activity. Further our city completes exhaustive background checks on anyone that holds a liquor license. I do not object to "tightening up" the ordinance so long as it gives the bar owners due process of law. I would like to see our police department, bar & restaurant owners work together to address any problems that are occurring downtown or up the hill. It’s in everyone’s best interest to maintain a safe and fun environment downtown Stillwater.