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Commentary: Chasing growth will hurt residents

Posted: Friday, August 5, 2016 3:45 pm

By John Diers

The Prior Lake City Council had a workshop on July 25 to consider the 2017 draft Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). I was at the workshop. It lasted slightly less than two hours, all of it given over to a series of staff presentations on transportation, and sewer and water and other utility projects.

A sentence in the handout accompanying the presentation stated that “the City’s Capital Improvement Plan has become our most important and ‘impactful’ (sic) financial planning tool.” That’s true. Between 2017 and 2021 the transportation plan alone calls for total spending of approximately $124 million on road projects with approximately $45 million coming from the tax levy or assessments, most of it ending up as city debt.

Only seven minutes were left at the end of the workshop before adjournment for the full council meeting. There was no discussion, no questions, no debate and no plans for further discussion of what the council just heard, even though millions of dollars and the future direction of the city were on the table.

There was one objector. Council Member Annette Thompson threw up her hands in frustration and said, “I disagree with all this.”

I walked out of the meeting thinking, “What’s the rush?” But then I remembered there’s an election in November and with it the opportunity for discussion and debate. For some on the council and city staff, along with the interests they represent, discussion and debate are to be avoided. Better to get the CIP and the city budget locked up and put away before voters look at the issues, ask questions about city spending and accountability and go to the polls, which explains the hurry-up public hearing on the CIP next Monday, Aug. 8 and a final vote scheduled for Aug. 22. That’s roughly 12 weeks before the election. Again, why the rush?

There are as many reasons for it as there are millions of tax dollars in the CIP. At the risk of being repetitious, here’s one:

Tucked away in the CIP is approximately $14 million for a project to close both Main and Duluth avenues at County Road 21 and extend Arcadia Avenue through the Pleasant Street neighborhood, across a wetland and along Anna Trail to an eventual connection with Highway 13. That’s plan A. Plan B, for approximately the same amount, would build a three-quarter intersection at Pleasant and Highway 13, extend Arcadia to Pleasant and route all the traffic along Pleasant to the Arcadia intersection.

Both are varying iterations of similar plans that were previously either rejected or postponed by the council, but like the proverbial bad penny, they keep coming back.

Mayor Ken Hedberg and City Manager Frank Boyles no doubt remember the irate citizens, angry downtown business owners and packed council chambers when this ca me up two years ago. I’m sure they would prefer to avoid such unpleasantness, especially in an election year.

In fairness, the real mover in all this is Scott County. It’s swallowed the pro-growth “Kool-Aid” and is fully subscribed to the unelected Met Council’s long-range plans. The Rutgers Street neighborhood had a taste of it a few weeks ago. Now the county wants to turn County Road 21 into a new ring road linking Highway 169 and Interstate 35 so cars and heavy trucks can whiz through Prior Lake at 50 mph, never mind the noise or what happens to downtown businesses, and neighborhoods and the quiet enjoyment of people’s homes and property. It’s cars vs. people and neighborhoods, and, if this happens as planned, people are going to lose.

The fact is the money in the CIP is all about chasing growth, and all of it is coming out of taxpayers’ pockets; not the developers and special interests who will fatten their bank accounts and then walk away from the debt and the environmental and other unintended consequences to follow.

We will hear, as we have before, that that the CIP is purely budgetary and not a firm plan, and that there will be more opportunities for discussion and debate, but what better forum to have a broad discussion about the CIP, city spending and debt, and the direction of the city and its future, than during an election year?

All too often plans, proposals and budgets become self-fulfilling prophecies. Before that happens, let’s talk about the issues and the future of the community collectively, and not defer to those with special interests and separate agendas.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American:

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)