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'Say Their Names' says city's sidewalk enforcement unfair
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A Northfield activist group is considering its options after its attempts at raising awareness of Black victims of police violence were stymied by city officials.

Since it formed last year following the murder of George Floyd, Say Their Names has attempted to write the names of people of color killed by police. The spot they chose holds symbolic meaning. They wrote the names in Bridge Square, which holds a monument to Northfield area residents who fought for the Union in the American Civil War, on the side dedicated to ending slavery.

However, Say Their Names said its writing in chalk was prohibited by the Northfield authorities last fall on the grounds it violated a city ordinance which prohibits the defacement of public property. Wendy Placko said that after they were warned by phone but chalked anyway, a police officer came up to them and told them to stop.

“According to our research, it seems as though the law is only being enforced upon complaint,” Placko said.

She pointed out that at the Pride celebration in June, there was widespread chalking but not apparent complaints.

“Any child can sidewalk chalk on the street without someone complaining because that’s wholesome and it’s not challenging anyone’s beliefs,” she said. In addition to the hypocrisy apparently on display with the chalking ordinance, Placko said, any ordinance enforced by complaint only, is inherently biased. Several overtures about the issue to city council members were fruitless, she said.

“Council members have expressed that this is not high on their priority lists,” Placko said.

Cecilia Cornejo Sotelo, STN member and arts professor at Carleton College, said it demonstrated an ignorance on the part of some in city government of what art is supposed to be: provocative and transgressive.

“It’s more tied to the idea of bringing tourism and dollars … which is fine, but I think we need all kinds of art, not just that kind,” Cornejo Sotelo said.

To illustrate her point that art has a long history of transgression, she brought up the example of French artist Marcel Duchamp and his 1917 artwork “Fountain” which consisted of a urinal.

The situation appears to be at an impasse. STN has since alternated to washing the chalk off immediately after writing it, or not chalking at all.

“Honestly I feel like we are very much pushed into a corner of we can do,” Placko said. “We have to be highly creative to figure out what we can even do.”

Instead of chalking, STN gathered Saturday at its usual spot in Bridge Square to paint canvas banners with slogans and honor famous acts of resistance by Black athletes. They highlighted the careers of athletes such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who notably raised their fists in a symbol of black power at the 1968 Olympics, and Colin Kaepernick, who generated controversy by kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games in 2016. They held aloft pictures of the athletes, including one of Raven Saunders, who made an X with her arms at the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year in order to symbolize intersectionality.

Although the event drew only about a dozen people from STN, passerby did spontaneously stop and listen to the athletes’ stories.

Far from definitely abandoning the idea of chalking, STN has considered defying the police order. They could fundraise in advance to pay the fine that would result, Placko said.

Cornejo Sotelo added the city had told them they could chalk, but they would need to immediately wash the chalk away or else pay for the cost of the city washing it away for them. When STN told the city they had the money, the city responded that actually, they didn’t have the available staff to wash off the chalk, Cornejo Sotelo said.

“The rules are not clear, the ordinance is only being applied to us,” she said. “There, you get into a much more prickly territory that has to do with how the ordinance is being enforced: in this case, it’s a discriminatory practice.”

City Administrator Ben Martig said Tuesday that the chalking was disallowed by city ordinance 50-27, the city rule against defacing public sidewalks. The ordinance in its entirety reads “No person shall write, print, stick, post, or place any bill, placard or sign of any description upon the sidewalks or other public structure of the city.”

Commissioners agree to fill funding gap for city housing project
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A Northfield housing project needing an infusion of cash to move forward has gotten a hand from the Rice County Board of Commissioners

The board on Tuesday, Sept. 14 unanimously approved spending up to $325,000 to meet an unanticipated funding gap. Money will come from the county’s portion of federal American Rescue Fund, dollars to be spent to limit the impacts of COVID-19.

According to Chris Flood, community development officer for Three Rivers Community Action, which is leading the Spring Creek townhomes II project, the agency was initially awarded $8.6 million to construct 32 housing units. Eight are scheduled to have two bedrooms, 22 are planned to as three-bedroom units, and two are to have as four bedrooms.

Four units will be allotted for the Northfield Community Action Center. Another four will be for people with developmental disabilities through a partnership with Rice County Adult Services and Laura Baker Services Association.

To ensure the project’s affordability, 24 units will be home to residents making below 60% of the area median income. Eight will be at 30% or under.

But when Three Rivers first solicited bids for the Spring Creek II project, they came in about $2.7 million higher than estimated. But due to cost increases surrounding the pandemic, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency tax credits Three Rivers received also increased, allowing the nonprofit to accommodate the unanticipated hike.

According to Flood, the agency then had issues with its contractor and had to rebid the project in July, hoping that a stabilization of markets would earn it lower bids. But that, Flood said, didn’t happen. Bids were another $750,000 higher than the first round of bids in March.

And while there have been about $215,000 in cost reductions and the tax credits fill some of that gap, there’s still a sizable hole.

Flood told the board during its Sept. 7 meeting that while other reductions could be made, doing so would jeopardize the tax credits, awarded based on the size and number of units and its energy-efficient appliances, equipment and construction. Exterior finishes can’t be modified either, as they’re required by Northfield city ordinances.

According to documents given to commissioners, the Housing Finance Agency appears disinterested in upping its contribution further. The city has stepped up, providing tax increment financing; its Housing & Redevelopment Authority donated land, about 4.5 acres.

That left the county as Three Rivers’ best hope for the project in a county with a vacancy rate hovering around 1%

Commissioners last week and on Tuesday questioned why the per unit cost is above the cost of building market-rate units.

Flood explained that the project received a score based on the inclusion of energy-efficient amenities, and that excluding them now would likely threaten the tex credits, thereby killing the project.

Three Rivers hopes to break ground next spring, so it needs an answer fairly quickly.

The project is supported by the community, County Housing Manager Joy Watson told the board, adding that these units will give some Northfielders a place of their own.

“it will provide housing for individuals that might otherwise be in a group home,” she said.

The Board of Commissioners are expected to vote on the request later this month.

Kraewood development seeks tax breaks on apartment building
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The Kraewood developers are requesting tax breaks from the city of Northfield.

If the planned 100-unit apartment building segment of the project is to receive Tax Increment Financing (TIF) from the city, 40 percent of the units must be affordable to residents who make 60 percent of the area median income.

The entire project is estimated to cost between $17-18 million. The TIF would be about $6.2 million, which is comprised of tax rebates based on the value the development adds to the property over time.

To receive TIF, a development project must pass the “but-for” test through financial analysis: would the project be able to go forward without the public financing? If the answer is “no” then they are eligible for TIF.

In this case, the city’s financial advisory firm, Ehlers, conducted a study of the finances put forward by development companies Rebound and Stencil. The Kraewood project has met the “but-for” standard, Community Development Director Mitzi Baker told the Northfield Planning Commision Thursday.

“That test has been met,” she said.

Baker explained that through TIF, Kraewood would not be getting any money that already exists in city coffers; rather, they would be getting a discount on taxes. Since Northfield uses a “pay as you go” style of TIF, developers Rebound and Stencil will still have to put up all the necessary capital themselves.

The Planning Commission’s action Thursday on Kraewood was largely symbolic; simply documenting that they had been consulted on the project. Commissioner Betsey Buckheit said it was inappropriate they had been asked to take action on it at all, since it gave the impression the Planning Commission had more control over the controversial project than it actually did.

“I think by having the Planning Commission review this, we’ve created some expectations in the public that we’re doing more than, in fact, we really are,” Buckheit said. “I think it might be cleaner if we thought about who actually needs to review something like this.”

Commissioner Tracy Heisler asked Baker what the city would be getting out of the TIF agreement. Baker responded by saying Northfield would receive new opportunities those with lower incoming to have housing.

“That’s a hard target market,” Baker said. “With market rate housing, you’re not going to get that, typically. Not with new construction. So, it does provide a new opportunity for new construction housing to be available to individuals and households in that income range. That’s huge.”

During the commission’s discussion, Chair Joe Gasior said the debate should be solely around the motion at hand — to acknowledge receipt of the TIF plan and determine if it is consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Any rehashing of the debate surrounding Kraewood itself would be considered out of order, he said.

Earlier, Commissioner William Schroeer had opposed even that relatively bland motion and voiced his opposition to the project as a whole. He later said it was inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.

Schroeer and Commissioner Greg Siems voted against the motion, while Commissioner Brian Nowak abstained. The motion ultimately passed 4-2.

The Housing and Redevelopment Authority will consider the TIF application at the HRA meeting Sept. 28. The council plans to hold a public hearing to consider the TIF district at its regular meeting Oct. 5.

The council will likely consider whether an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, or EAW, is required for the project during the regular meeting Oct. 5. This decision will center on whether further investigation is needed to determine what impacts, if any, Kraewood would have on the ecology of the area.

City considering tax levy hike of 12 to 16% for 2022
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The Northfield City Council is considering a range of potential property tax increases: from 12% to 16% over the existing levy amount.

At its regular meeting Tuesday, the council will choose a preliminary 2022 levy increase between three options presented to it at a work session Sept. 14 by City Administrator Ben Martig. Martig also allowed for the possibility of the council choosing a new, as-yet-undetermined option.

After the council votes to approve the preliminary levy next week, it can choose to lower it, but not to raise it, for the rest of the budget-making process.

The options as included in Martig’s presentation include an 11.8% increase, which is considered a baseline, a 15% increase, which would fulfill most staff requests for additional funds, and an 15.9% increase, which would fulfill all staff requests.

Martig on Wednesday acknowledged the levy increase would likely be hefty compared to prior budget years.

“Double-digit increases in the tax levy aren’t things that we’ve typically seen,” he said.

Martig said the council appeared to be deciding between the 15% and 15.9% options.

“The way they said it was, they could support either B or C,” he said. “That was consistent with all the members of the council.”

However, the difference between options B and C — about $100,000 — is marginal when viewed in the context of the overall budget, Martig said.

“I wouldn’t want to speculate as to which option they might be [favoring],” Martig said.

As it stands now, the city of Northfield is $2.4 million below the average city budget in a pool of similarly-sized cities, he said.

The city will have a chance to get increased funds both from the levy increase itself, and from the added value of property in the city. The estimated market value of property within Northfield has gone up by 6.3%, and 19% of that consists of new development.

There are three new positions that will be added with the funding from the baseline levy: A police evidence technician, to help manage body cam data, conversion of the temporary city program coordinator position into a permanent one, and finally, a part-time Spanish translator.

Martig said it was typical for the council to revise the cost down by the time final budget and levy decisions came in December. For now, it was up to it to consider if, and how, to winnow down the proposed increase, as well as which city departments would get their requests fulfilled.

There are a number of requested new FTEs, or Full Time Employee slots, that will pit departments against each other in the competition for funding. These are beyond the “baseline” proposed budget, so they arguably stand the biggest chance of being cut.

The Northfield Police Department requested another full-time police officer, at an overall budget cost of $103,000 annually. Chief Mark Elliott said the new position was based on a c2019 ity review of the police department’s efficiency. Asked whether council members seemed to be supportive of the FTE, Elliott did not say.

“That’s part of what we’re going through right now,” he said. “These budget work sessions are ones where we have discussions and Q & A, those type of things.”