Saturday’s Northfield City Council debates focused on the possible financial impacts of COVID-19 and the need for the officials to utilize existing land to spark economic growth.

The virtual debates, sponsored by The League of Women Voters-Northfield Cannon Falls, included candidates for three council races, including the Ward 2 race between two-term incumbent David DeLong and Jami Reister; at-large first-term incumbent Brad Ness and his challenger, Ricky Livingston; and Ward 3 challengers Don Stager and George Zuccolotto.

COVID-19

DeLong noted some families have been greatly impacted by the pandemic due to lengthy layoffs. He predicted the state’s moratorium on evictions during the pandemic will cause Northfield landlords to have trouble paying their property taxes. With those complications, DeLong derided the City Council for approving a 5.7% preliminary tax levy increase last month and increasing council members’ salaries. Ness also said city finances constitute the most pressing issue for Northfield as possible local government aid cuts loom, adding that the council must evaluate the issues it will address and prioritize expenditures to see where cuts may be needed.

“We don’t know where that is going to end up for 2021,” Ness noted of local government aid from the state.

To Zuccolotto, the biggest issue facing the city is similar to the main problem he sees inflicting the U.S.: A lack of public communication and transparency. He said community members he’s spoken to have told him they aren’t aware of the composition of the council nor who the mayor is.

“How do we get this information to the people who need it?” he asked.

Reister said affordable housing is the biggest problem facing Northfield and needs to be addressed by private and public sectors as well as nonprofits. As evidence, she cited a family member who wants to move to the area but is facing cost complications. She added people who find good, stable, secure and safe housing have more money to pay health care costs, food expenses and debt.

Stager said there needs to be more local COVID-19 testing and treatment. Also, he said a top priority is balancing the city budget both in the short term and long run, an approach he sees as including a focus on “logical development.” He added the city needs to grow its housing base and evaluate zoning laws to help introduce more housing.

Livingston said a sufficient housing supply is “essential” and suggested the city better communicate available housing options and the number of boards and commissions serving the community. He also wants to see Northfield officials focus more on increasing the supply of solar energy used in homes and discuss more economic development and climate matters.

The candidates expressed mixed opinions, however, on the possibility of creating an affordable housing trust fund for Northfield. Stager said he supported the plan but does not want to continue building on the southern edges of the city due to the high cost of investing in the development of the area’s infrastructure.

DeLong said though he is not familiar with the option, he supports the approach taken by Habitat for Humanity in building such housing. Livingston added he supports either establishing the trust fund, or continuing having Habitat for Humanity introduce such projects.

Zuccolotto said though he would “of course” support the fund, doing so would need to come through stakeholder participation and he couldn’t disregard environmental sustainability or other factors.

Ness said though he doesn’t know much about the plan, he would support its implementation if the city offers assistance and places a percentage of the revenue into affordable housing, like introducing tax increment financing.

“If that’s used, that’s a good program,” he said.

Reister said she needs to learn more about the plan but believes it would be a “creative tool to finding community housing” if done sustainably.

Economic development

Livingston said ensuring economic development involves striking a balance between private and public sectors.He predicted that for industrial/commercial growth to occur, Northfield must offer a sufficient quality of life and help current residents find new jobs. Livingston advocated for public outreach in the process and predicted the fate of the downtown area will decide the city’s broader economic outcome.

Ness noted several housing development projects are underway to tackle the lack of affordable housing, suggesting the 500 acres west of Northfield Hospitla and annexed by the city more than a decade ago be developed into a business park. Though he spoke glowingly of the Economic Development Department, Ness said the city must do more to lower property taxes.

Ness also spoke of the existing economic development work undertaken by the city, including the allocation of $300,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act dollars for business grants of up to $10,000 each. The council recently allocated $200,000 for nonprofits as well, and the EDA has established storefront repair grants of up to $20,000. To Ness, however, the council’s direction to the EDA hasn’t been strong enough, and he believes communication between the two boards must improve.

Zuccolotto said the economy must shift from a for-profit structure to focusing on helping humanity. If that happens, he predicted businesses would still earn a profit while the economy grows. Zuccolotto advocated for the continuation of existing small business loans and encouraged banks to “take risks” on minority and first-time business owners to ensure their economic success.

To DeLong, in noting more than 50% of Northfield properties are considered tax exempt, commercial development reduces the city’s property tax burden and serves as the largest driver in economic growth. Still, he stressed that any approach must be formed through a collaborative council decision. DeLong also advocated for directly reaching out to businesses to gauge owner thoughts and suggested the possible introduction of a business incubation center.

Reister suggested the city achieve economic growth by helping existing businesses stay afloat during COVID-19. Instead of developing land on the edges of the city, Reister believes Northfield should build up large areas of land it already has. She also advocated for improving local amenities through efficiently developing the city’s parks and riverfront area.

To Stager, the council should market the community similar to other college cities like Palo Alto, California, and South Bend, Indiana. He said because more jobs are projected to be home-based as the pandemic continues, Northfield officials need to effectively market the city’s high quality of life. To Stager, Northfield could follow similar existential growth trends as Lakeville by developing its transportation options to the Twin Cities.

Climate Action Plan goals

As part of its Climate Action Plan, the city has committed to having carbon-neutral energy in place by 2040.

Ness said the financial impacts of related projects must be considered before moving ahead.

Zuccolotto, in expressing similar thoughts, suggested undertaking cost-effective, sustainable measures to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

Stager suggested continuing to develop the downtown district in a “dense, focused way” noting the federal tax credits available for such work. He added that Xcel Energy is providing free energy audits.

DeLong said though he supports the city placing solar panels on public facilities, he doesn’t advocate for such projects to be mandatory for private individuals.

Background

The candidates extensively discussed their love of Northfield and desire to see the city grow.

Livingston, a veteran, said he and his partner have lived in the city for approximately five years. He said he wants to see a better relationship in Northfield between “emerging activism,” existing clubs and other groups.

Ness, a lifelong Northfield resident and St. Olaf College graduate, has served on the council since 2017. His appointments have included serving as a Hospital Board liaison, Convention and Visitors Bureau chair and roles undertaken with other city groups. He has served as the city’s mayor pro tempore.

DeLong is seeking his third consecutive term on the council though he previously, he served two terms in the mid- to late-90s. Citing his experience, DeLong, who has been active with Age Friendly Northfield, said he has extensive institutional knowledge and frequently plays the role as devil’s advocate as a councilor.

A physician, Reister has lived in Northfield for a little more than 14 years, attended St. Olaf College and grew up in South Dakota. Following college, she returned to medical school, before moving to Omaha, Nebraska, back to South Dakota and then again relocating to Northfield. If elected, she said she would bring a new perspective.

Stager, a Rotarian, spoke of his more than two decades of corporate business experience. He described himself as a fiscal conservative and environmentalist, adding that he is trying to support the continued growth of downtown Northfield.

Zuccolotto, who moved to Northfield as a child and later attended Arcadia Charter School, said he learned of the disparities and disconnect evident within the community through his involvement with the Latino population.

Roundabout?

One of the debate questions posed was whether the challengers would support any roundabout at the intersection of Jefferson Parkway and Jefferson Road. Work is nearing completion on a roundabout at the intersection of Jefferson Parkway and Hwy. 246.

DeLong said he would not support such a plan and believes the construction would not be an easy process. Zuccolotto, Livingston and Stager agreed, the former suggesting the funds for any project could likely be put to better use.

Reister, in discussing her support for the under-construction roundabout for safety reasons, said she wouldn’t “necessarily” support a roundabout at Jefferson Parkway and Jefferson Road. Ness said he “would have to closely look at that one,” noting there have been no confirmed pedestrian/traffic deaths in roundabouts in Minnesota. Though he cited that consideration as a possible factor for support, he added he would need to evaluate the cost before committing to his approval.

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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