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This week’s West St. Paul City Council meeting was mostly routine business with a poignant moment during citizen comments, a presentation on the Police Chaplain program, and the gift of a playground. Some of the more interesting discussion happened during work sessions before the official meeting, including an update on the North Gateway project and debate on the prevailing wage ordinance.
The Economic Development Authority work session covered a redesigned plan for the North Gateway apartment proposal at Robert and Annapolis. In response to previous complaints about the aesthetics of the building, Dakota County made a number of changes. They reduced the number of units from 60 to 54, creating more green space on the corner and between the buildings, as well as moving the underground parking entrance from the north side to the west. Sloped roofs on the corners, retaining walls in front of the building, and more variation in the siding materials also helped soften the look.
Council members were appreciative of the changes. The project will go to the Planning Commission on March 17.
The county is also holding a meeting with neighbors on Tuesday, March 9 at 6 p.m. at the Dakota building, across the street from the proposed project.
During the Open Council Work Session (OCWS), a debate emerged over a 2007 prevailing wage ordinance. It came up during recent conversations about the proposed apartments on the former K-mart site, and it has the potential to derail that project.
Prevailing wage is a labor standard that mandates an hourly wage, benefits, and overtime in an attempt to ensure workers are making a living wage. The ordinance requires a prevailing wage for city projects and private development that receive more than $50,000 in financial assistance.
However, it sounds like West St. Paul hasn’t been enforcing the ordinance.
A memo from the city attorney lists 17 projects that might have been impacted by the ordinance—but it’s not an exhaustive or vetted list. The majority don’t apply for one reason or another: Some pre-date the ordinance, some haven’t been finalized, others don’t meet the $50,000 threshold, and others used prevailing wage based on state or other mandates. But depending on how you count them, there are two to six projects that probably should have been prevailing wage, yet there was “no mention of prevailing wages.”
As Council Member Bob Pace pointed out, we don’t know if the ordinance was followed or not. There were no compliance checks, so it’s possible these projects did use a prevailing wage—we just don’t know. Which is still a failure of the process to ensure ordinances are being followed.
Ultimately the Council has to decide if they’re going to start enforcing the ordinance or roll it back to only apply to city projects. And they have to decide quick, because the apartments on the former K-mart site are waiting for this answer.
“We’re providing a way for them to underpay workers so they can overpay a land owner who won’t lower their price,” Council Member John Justen said. “Everything about this I find really problematic.”
“I think we have to be real,” Pace said. “They’re in a money pinch because of a land deal, but also because of what they’re building—low income housing. I think it should be retooled. Give the Council more freedom to do different things with different developers that come in.”
A majority of the Council sided with reworking the ordinance, but Justen remained adamantly opposed.
“I don’t want to explain this to somebody that’s a union household in West St. Paul and missing out on work because of it,” Justen said.
“Point your finger at the old guy,” Council Member Dick Vitelli replied. “I’ll try to explain it.”
City staff will need to come up with an ordinance change and bring it back for approval.
Police Chief Brian Sturgeon honored the work of the Police Chaplain program. It’s a joint effort with Mendota Heights that started in 2003 and currently includes seven chaplains.
The chaplains serve citizens and support first responders. They’re often on hand to support with sudden deaths, suicides, death notifications, and other traumatic events. Sometimes they’ll ride with officers on patrol and provide personal and spiritual support.
Sturgeon recounted a story of being on the scene of a homicide and emotions were running high among the victim’s family and friends. As anger started to build, two chaplains arrived and were able to defuse the situation.
- Citizen comments: In an emotional moment, a woman spoke against the practice of gay conversion therapy. She broke down while speaking about her late husband, and Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne stepped forward to finish reading the woman’s prepared comments. She spoke of her transgender daughter and her battles with suicide, and encouraged the council to ban conversion therapy. A ban has been proposed at the state level, but was blocked in the Senate. Minneapolis and Duluth have already banned conversion therapy, and St. Paul, St. Louis Park, and Golden Valley are working on it. A separate comment focused on International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, encouraging women to run for office (Full disclosure: That was me.)
- Women: Council Member Wendy Berry also acknowledged Women’s History Month with a few words and a quote from Maya Angelou: “A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy, a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim.”
- Marthaler playground: The West St. Paul/Mendota Heights Rotary Club donated $12,000 to the city for a new playground structure at Marthaler Park. The Rotary Club hosts an annual moonlight golf tournament, called Moonstruck, and donates the money. This year they chose Marthaler Park. The playground structure will be installed later this year.
- Special services district: During the OCWS the Council approved taking the next step in exploring a special services district along Robert Street that would assess local businesses in order to do things like marketing and beautification.
- Cosmetic tattooing: Semi-permanent cosmetic tattooing, such as microblading, eyelid and lip colorization, etc., are currently only allowed under a restrictive body art tattoo ordinance. Since this new process is very different from your standard tattoo, an ordinance tweak will allow it with fewer restrictions.
- More new ordinances: Several other new ordinances were considered on a first reading, all pretty minor—how the fire department reports inspections to come in line with state standards, changing the pawn reporting ordinance to be less specific and allow the police to switch providers as needed, and easements for an already approved senior care center on Robert Street.
City Council meetings are open to the public and generally held on the second and fourth Mondays of each month at 6:30 p.m. You can also watch this meeting online.
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