Duluth Mail Bag: What does a city councilor do?

Hobbs Mail BagAs a two-time Duluth city councilor, now in my final year of service, one of my goals is to make city government more accessible, or at least help citizens become more informed. I figure there are many Duluthians who would like some simple answers to some simple questions. I learned in school that if there is something you don’t understand it’s likely there are many others who feel the same way. Hence the idea of the Duluth Mailbag column.

I won’t divulge who is asking the questions, but I’ll answer them in this format about once a month. Feel free to put a question in the comments for next month’s “Duluth Mailbag” or tweet me via @Hobbs_Duluth or email me at hobbsforduluth @ gmail.com.

Also, if you want to have a longer conversation, you can sign up for a 45-minute cup of coffee through my 100 Cups of Coffee project.

OK, here we go!

Does the City of Duluth fund the school district?

If you look at the city of Duluth’s budget, you will find no line item for funding Duluth’s schools. That is because the city does not finance Independent School District #709. The school board makes those decisions as it has levy authority (as do nearly all school districts in Minnesota). For example, if I, as a city councilor, wanted to fully fund our schools, decrease funding, or somewhere in-between, I cannot do that via the city budget or in my role as a councilor. I can, as a citizen, vote for school board candidates that most accurately reflect my values about public education. I could run for school board if I wanted to have a direct effect on our school system’s funding. Neither the mayor or city councilors decide how ISD 709 is funded.

How are potholes filled?

I understand you have to deal with potholes going to and from work, school, and recreation, and that those are the ones that need to be filled the most. Now consider 86,000 people with the same view of every pothole they encounter. The city has a system for filling potholes now that the hot mix is flowing. The city of Duluth repairs potholes under a priority system. There are three priorities under the system: Priority one (P1), priority two (P2), and priority three (P3). The city repairs potholes starting on a priority one street, then priority two, and then priority three. Potholes are patched by neighborhood so they are repaired and not missed. (Currently, we are still patching P1 streets)

What does the city council actually do?

Either too much or not enough depending on who you ask. But here is a breakdown of the role of city councilor:

  • Setting and interpreting rules governing council proceedings.
  • Exercising all the powers that the law does not delegate to others (more limited to Duluth councilors as Duluth has a strong mayor form of government).
  • Legislating for the city.
  • Directing the enforcement of city ordinances.
  • Appointing administrative personnel. Duluth’s charter mandates that the chief of police and fire chief must be confirmed by the city council and city administrator.
  • Appointing members to boards and commissions.
  • Conducting city intergovernmental affairs.
  • Protecting the city’s welfare and its inhabitants.
  • Transacting city business. This is what we spend most of our council meetings on accepting bids, approving requests for proposals, executing legal papers, and purchasing equipment.
  • Approving the budget. Under a strong mayor system, Duluth’s council controls the maximum amount levied. The council doesn’t have authority to direct spending decisions or cuts, that responsibility rests solely with the mayor. The council can choose how much money the mayor has to spend on the budget.

When is the Better Bus Blueprint happening?

The Duluth Transit Authority is implementing the Better Bus Blueprint on Aug. 27. It will change the existing DTA network, downsizing from its current 33 routes to 14 routes. While there is a decrease in the number of routes, there will be the addition of two Go lines that will run every 15 minutes. These lines will connect West Duluth, Downtown, UMD, and Miller Hill using higher frequency routes. If you would like more information on the Better Bus Blueprint, visit duluthtransit.com.

Is the city ready for cannabis legalization?

Yes. The state has a prescribed method of what to do and provides funds to administer the sale and enforcement of the cannabis industry. The city cannot collect its own tax on cannabis. This is an area, like alcohol sales and enforcement, in which the state provides significant guidance. On August 1st cannabis use in flower form will be legal in Minnesota the legal sale of marijuana may not begin until 2025.  The state will be the licensing entity for legal cannabis retailers, not the city.

Why do Park Point residents pay the highest tax rates in the city?

They don’t. Properties on Park Point pay the same rate as other properties with the same classification across the city, whether that is in Congdon, Lakeside, Piedmont, Smithville, Gary, Norton Park, or West Duluth. Municipalities can’t increase tax rates based on neighborhoods.

How do property taxes work?

Each year, local governments set a levy to fund the budget. They determine how much money must be raised by property tax revenue to cover their spending after accounting for other revenues. The value and classification of your property determine your share of the levy.

In its simplest form, the yearly tax due for each property is based on:

  • Local budget and tax calculations.
  • Value and use (classification) of the property.
  • Tax credits or programs that reduce the tax due.
  • Additional school or state property taxes are applied to certain properties.

The full calculation can be complex. Below is an overview I hope explains the broad calculations and formulas.

Local Tax and Calculations

Local and county officials calculate how much money they need to raise from property taxes and the resulting local tax rate.

Step 1: Towns, cities, schools, and counties calculate how much property tax revenue is needed, known as the local tax levy:

Total Proposed Local Budget – Non-Property Tax Revenue = Local Tax Levy

Step 2: The levy is spread among all taxable properties according to their tax capacity:

Taxable Market Value x Classification Rate = Tax Capacity

Step 3: The levy and total tax capacity for all properties are used to calculate the local tax rate:

Local Tax Levy / Total Tax Capacity = Local Tax Rate

Step 4: For each property, the county auditor determines if tax credits or additional taxes apply, such as:

Property Tax Credits (for certain types of property or programs)
Referendum Levies (additional school levies approved by voters)
State General Tax (an additional state levy on certain types of property)

Property Tax Formula

The county auditor determines the tax due for each property using this basic formula:

Taxable Market Value x Class Rate = Tax Capacity
Tax Capacity x Local Tax Rates = Base Tax
Base Tax – Credits + Referendum Levy and State General Tax = Property Tax Due

Property tax is administered by counties. If you have questions about the valuation or classification for your specific property tax, contact the St. Louis County Assessor’s Office. Note: The assessor is not responsible for the amount of money you pay in property taxes. Tax rates are determined by your local taxing authorities, including the city, county, and school districts. You may not appeal your taxes.

How do I appeal my home’s valuation and classification?

If you believe your property value or classification is incorrect, contact the St. Louis County Assessor’s office. Here is some information and steps to take prior to reaching out:

  • Verify your property information, such as dimensions, age, and condition of structures.
  • Review property records to determine the market values of similar properties in your neighborhood.
  • Review sales data to compare similar properties in your area.
  • Ask the assessor to explain the criteria used to classify your property. You may review the classifications of other properties used like yours.
  • If your property has not been inspected recently (both interior and exterior) ask the assessor to review your property.
  • Know your estimated market value for the current and prior years.
  • Know your property classification.
  • Know the dates and times of St. Louis County Board meetings.

What is the Rebuild Duluth Program?

Timely question and likely brought on by the tiny home that is in the news recently! The Rebuild Duluth program was created in 2019 with the goal of identifying and reducing the costs of creating infill housing within Duluth. Duluth has a lot of vacant lots, and this program is in response to creating more infill lots. Disclosure: I work for One Roof Community Housing during the day and One Roof has utilized the Rebuild Duluth program to complete several single-family homes — some of which have been narrower single-family housing than what is currently constructed.

Affordable housing development is a lot more complicated than “build this cheaply.” I’m happy to have a conversation with anyone. If you’re interested in learning more about the Rebuild Duluth Program, you can check out its FAQ or Program Description.

How are unelected city staff held accountable for decisions (i.e. Beacon Pointe, Lincoln Park Flats hotel conversion, and London Road condos)?

The city council does not manage staff — that duty falls upon the chief administrative officer and department directors. The city of Duluth has nearly 850 employees who have chosen to dedicate their lives and careers to the citizens of Duluth. They have chosen to work to improve our city and have expertise in their field of work. It is impossible for councilors to manage the day-to-day operations of the city because we are prohibited from doing so by the city charter, but also because many of us work full-time outside of our council roles.

The council approves significant projects and oversees how the city operates. This is done via approving/denying purchases zoning decisions from the planning commission, etc. In various forms, the council has authorized the above-mentioned projects. In general, the council has a variety of projects it either approves or denies based on the merits of the projects. The responsibility falls upon the council’s decision and or upon a mayoral veto (I couldn’t tell you when one was used!). That’s a long-winded way of saying accountability ultimately lands on the council dais.

Snowplow GPS Addendum

The city will be using global positioning systems to monitor and improve the snowplowing process. It has not been determined when or in what form — whether in real-time or with a delay — the GPS data might be available to the public. Some of our plow drivers experienced credible threats to their safety this past season. We need to best figure out how to protect city staff.

1 Comment

Tony D.

about 9 months ago

Thanks, Noah. Fellow readers, I had a coffee with Noah a couple months ago and I suggest that if you have deep concerns and questions about how the city operates, you should do the same. You will likely have an informative meeting and walk away with a better understanding of your concerns, as I did. For example, I asked him about an issue concerning traffic in my neighborhood—the same issue I have repeatedly asked my district's city councilor to address. Instead of paying minor lip service before passing the buck to a city staffer, like the person elected to represent me did, Noah addressed the issue and now the city is actually going to do something  about it.

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