What is the most pressing issue in Northfield and why? What would you do to address it?
David Ludescher: The question is unclear as to whom “Northfield” is. Do you mean the most pressing issue for “the people,” the Council, or “the city”? And, do you mean, in my opinion what is or should be the most pressing issue? And, does pressing mean most urgent or most critical? I ran because I saw three critical but not urgent issues — 1) an unhealthy consolidation of power into the council’s hands. This is exemplified by the Council’s unwillingness to swear to uphold the Charter. 2) a bullying of our neighbors. This is exemplified by our lawsuit with Waterford, and 3) spiraling and uncontrolled spending and taxes as exemplified by the roundabout at the intersection of Minnesota Highway 246 and Jefferson Parkway.
Rhonda Pownell: We have a lot of work ahead of us to address COVID-19 and the constantly changing environment associated with the pandemic. I will continue to advocate that we strategically and creatively work together to support our businesses and nonprofits in order to stabilize and stimulate our local economy as well as work with the CAC and HCI to provide social support and stabilize households and families with emergency housing assistance, food distribution, and internet access. It’s likely that the needs that we’ve seen as a community will continue into 2021. It will be important to maintain our focus, creativity, and collaboration as a community to address the pandemic while not losing track of the long-term goals and values we had before the pandemic hit.
We are aware of the pressing need for affordable housing locally. What steps can the council take to ensure there is a sufficient stock?
RP: We have made significant improvement in this area, adding 132 new affordable workforce residential units. The new owners of Florella’s are working to update sewer, water and electricity to 33 trailer home lots so they can be used for affordable housing. We are working on adding additional housing for seniors and ensuring that existing workforce housing units are well maintained and preserved. We need to continue to take a multi-faceted approach and collaborate with the CAC and Three Rivers, Rice County HRA, MN Housing Finance Agency, Northfield HRA, and others to ensure we have the necessary emergency housing, rental, senior, affordable and workforce housing units available to meet the current and future needs of our community. This is definitely a challenge that needs more work. We will continue to work on it with the HRA and our employers to ensure that we have homes for workers of all income levels.
DL: Part of the affordable housing problem has been created by the city government. The rental ordinance not only reduced the number of people who could live in the housing units, it also limited the number of units that could be on the market. And, restrictive housing codes have contributed to increased costs for new or remodeled housing. The council has also taken a very odd approach to the housing stock issue by incentivizing Rebound to build high-end housing downtown. While the new units do have an “affordable” aspect, I think we all know that the reason for the “affordable housing” is to get government assistance. The millions that we are subsidizing this private venture could have been used to more broadly fund affordable units.
What approach do you suggest the city should take in remaining financially solvent through COVID-19? Combatting any corresponding decrease in LGA funding?
DL: The question should be, ‘What approach do you suggest for the council in ensuring that the people of Northfield remain financially solvent?’ It is quite likely that the city government is going to see LGA funding decline because the state has less money. But, most of the people have suffered already — for months. Yet, in spite of the plight of the people, the council agreed to increase taxes 5.7%. During my tenure on the council, we didn’t have a financially solvency problem. We had more money than the state auditor recommended in the general fund, and healthy reserves in most enterprise funds. I don’t know how we can have a “solvency problem” when taxes will have increased about 30% since I left four years ago. Increasing financial transparency and getting the citizenry involved would go a long way to addressing the council’s spending problem.
RP: About 34% of your local property tax bill is attributed to the city. The rest is set by Rice County and the school district. That limited income from property taxes covers only about 50% of the city general fund operations budget. We have strong financial policies in place and have a healthy fund balance to address any shortages in LGA funding so that we can sustain essential services like police, public works and the library. CARES dollars are being used to support our existing businesses and stimulate our local economy and should be used for one time expenditures to reduce this year’s tax levy. We know that constantly cutting back on the budget or keeping costs as low as possible causes a lot of deferred maintenance and shifts the financial burden onto future generations. That just doesn’t work. Continuing to make investments in facilities and infrastructure will be important.
Where would you like to see Northfield be in five to 10 years? How do you plan to achieve that vision?
RP: Our aspirational vision statement states “Northfield is an open safe and welcoming community recognized for its world-class colleges and historic riverfront downtown, and is dedicated to sustainably enhancing and preserving its vibrant culture, celebrated arts, strong economy, and an excellent quality of life where all can thrive.” Our community needs to maintain the momentum we have built to see through the initiatives in our strategic plan, while adapting to what’s changed in our community and world since the last plan. Northfield is a beautiful city, chock full of amazing talent and tremendous potential that we have yet to fully tap. I hope that bringing people together in a spirit of collaboration and championing optimism and an appreciation for all people and their accomplishments, I can help our wonderful town be better, and leave it in better condition for future generations.
DL: I don’t have a vision that I want to impose on the 20,000 people who live here. I don’t see my role as to “lead” the people; I see my role to “serve” the people. I am of the firm conviction that we need to work on the urgent problems I have suggested above — respect for the charter, a sense of community — inside and outside our municipal borders, and financial prudence. If we can achieve those things, our other “problems” will solve themselves. I am not interested in creating a Denmark, Portland, or San Antonio; I am interested in creating a better and more inclusive Northfield. And, by that I mean in deeds, and not in consultant reports, or new positions, or words.
What do you believe is the role of the Northfield city government?
DL: The maximum role of government is in the charter. We should be a government of limited powers in the best sense — bound by the charter, and state and federal constitutions, and reserving the rights to the people, who imperfectly express their wishes through elections. Presently, I believe the council sees the charter and the Charter Commission, and the boards and commissions as an obstacle to what the majority of the seven want rather than as assisting them in their solemn duties.
RP: Our city charter states that the City Council is responsible for promoting and protecting “the health, safety, morals, comfort, convenience, and welfare of the inhabitants of the city...” Our strategic plan (https://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/1148/City-Strategic-Plan), developed through a robust community, board and commission, and city council process, is guiding our policy direction to meet the current and future needs of our community, our children, and our grandchildren.