West St. Paul City Council meeting

City Council Recap: August 9, 2021

Thanks to Southview Garden Center for their support.

Major business at tonight’s West St. Paul City Council meeting happened during the Open Council Work Session (OCWS), with conversation about the proposed 2022 budget and the setting for OCWS meetings going forward. Nearly half of the regular meeting was taken up with citizen comments from a former Council member.

2022 Budget

Finance Director Char Stark gave the City Council an overview of the proposed preliminary budget for 2022 and 2023 during the OCWS.

Here are some of the high points:

  • The operating budget is up about 4.5%, with additions including a few new proposed staff positions.
  • The proposed tax levy increase is 4.74%. That’s the lowest increase since 2014.
  • The increase will work out to about $30 for a home valued at $220,000 (most of the increase is due to rising market values).

The preliminary budget for 2023 does include $400,000 of local government assistance from the state that’s not yet allocated. Options include tackling a project in the plan (ice arena, pool expansion, or skateboard park), increasing funding for streets and/or sidewalks, or reducing the tax levy.

The budget will get some more tweaks and come back before the Council in September for official approval.

Another budget change includes the proposed fees for 2022. The biggest change is reducing the license for tattoo and body art shops from $1,925 to $400 to be more in line with neighboring cities. The high fee had been intended to dissuade tattoo and body shops, which City Council is no longer interested in doing.

Revamping OCWS

The location and transparency of OCWS meetings has been in a moving target in the last year. Before COVID-19, OCWS meetings were held in the lobby conference room. While the meetings were open to the public, they weren’t televised or recorded, other than an audio recording by the city clerk for note-taking purposes. During the pandemic, OCWS meetings moved to the Council chambers and were broadcast online to allow for transparency given the occupancy limits.

There’s concern that the formal setting at the official City Council dais is stifling the informal dialogue that used to happen. The challenge is how to return to a less formal setting while still providing transparency.

Five different options were proposed with radically different costs. On the low or zero end, Council could stick with the current format and change nothing or move back to the lobby conference room and simply post the city clerk’s recording online after the meeting. On the opposite end, $54,000 worth of renovations to the lobby conference room would allow for the city to televise meetings with broadcast quality.

Council members balked at the $54,000 cost and want to explore cheaper options, or just stay the course in the chambers and try to make a mindset shift to make OCWS meetings more informal.

Other Items on the Agenda:

  • Citizen comments: Two residents spoke during citizen comments to complain about Council Member Dick Vitelli’s comments at the previous meeting during the debate over Bidwell sidewalks. One of those residents, former Council Member John Bellows, also suggested Council Members were playing favorites with special interest groups who donated in the last election (something Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne later flatly denied). Bellows went on to complain about a number of things, including the coming monument sign in front of Dakota County’s Gateway Place development. Bellows argued that our welcome sign shouldn’t mention Dakota County. Council Member John Justen pointed out that it’s a county project and they’re paying for the sign, and also that monument welcome signs were removed from the Robert Street project budget by previous Councils. Bellows insisted it must have been in the last two years and not when he served on Council. It actually happened at the July 27, 2015 meeting (when Bellows served on Council), and Bellows voted to remove the signs from the budget.
  • Rules and ethics: The City Council finally passed their rules and code of ethics, which should have been done in January but was delayed as the Charter Commission debated a few amendments that impacted those rules.
  • Group homes: The Minnesota state legislature changed the definition of ‘housing with services establishments,’ which rendered parts of city code irrelevant. Repealing those references received a first reading.
  • Vacating Kruse Street: No one spoke during a public hearing on vacating a leftover right of way on Augustana Lutheran Church property. Council approved the final reading.

City Council meetings are currently held on the second and fourth Mondays of each month at 6:30 p.m. You can also watch the OCWS and City Council meetings online.

Here’s the video recap from Ward 2 Council Members Robyn Gulley and John Justen.

We’re able to do these City Council recaps thanks to your support.

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