Council Meeting Recap, March 17, 2015

The Crystal City Council held Citizen’s Input Time, two work sessions, an EDA meeting, and a council meeting on March 17, 2015.

Because of time restraints I’m going to do a slightly abbreviated recap this week, focusing on two of the major issues we discussed at the council meeting.  My colleague Olga Parsons did a more comprehensive recap and I’ll send you over to her site for more details.

I do want to point out before I start that this was a fairly unique meeting in that we had three members absent.  Two were sick, and one had planned out of town travel.  One of the absent members was Mayor Adams, which meant that council member Julie Deshler, who is Mayor Pro Tem this year, acted as mayor for this meeting.

The two major issues I want to discuss are tobacco/alcohol penalties, and a cooperative agreement with Hennepin County.

State law requires that stores that sell tobacco be licensed by a city, or in areas where cities don’t do the licensing, by the county.  The law also requires that at least annually, the city (or county) perform compliance checks to make sure stores are not selling to underage individuals.

When an individual sells tobacco to a person who is under age, the individual is personally charged with a crime. In addition to charging the seller with a crime personally, state law requires cities to charge an administrative penalty to the holder of the tobacco license.  The state law proscribes a minimum penalty, but allows cities to adopt their own, stricter penalties.

The laws governing alcohol are a bit different, but most cities, including Crystal, have implemented compliance checks and civil penalties for license holders who violate the laws regarding the sale of alcohol or tobacco to minors.

After the person who illegally sold the item has pled or been found guilty of the criminal act, the civil portion of the process is begun and the item will come before the city council.

The council has adopted guidelines for civil penalties by ordinance. The guidelines for a first violation are for a fine of up to $750, and loss of license for up to one day, and get more severe from there, ending with a revocation after the fourth violation within 36 months.  These are only guidelines.  The council has the discretion to adjust the penalties up or down based on the circumstances of each case, provided they don’t go lower than state law allows ($75 on a first tobacco offense).

There are a few instances where the council must act in what’s called a “quasi-judicial” manner, meaning that although council members are not judges in a court, they do act in a similar way.  They must have open minds, they can’t prejudge a matter, they must consider the circumstances of the matter in front of them, they can’t act in an arbitrary or capricious manner.  Considering civil penalties is one of those instances.

Both of the incidents in front of the council were first time offenders, one for tobacco, one for alcohol.  Both failed their compliance checks.  Both made significant changes to their business processes to ensure they would not make a second offense.  One owner (tobacco) changed store policy to not allow anyone under 21 in the store, and the other (alcohol) bought and installed new software that wouldn’t allow a sale to complete until a valid ID was swiped into the cash register.

I voted in favor of a $750 fine for each business.  This is 10 times the state minimum required for tobacco violations.  The council was unanimous on the tobacco violation, and had one dissenting vote on the alcohol violation, with Mayor Pro Tem Deshler preferring a one day suspension of the alcohol license in addition to the fine.

I was really on the fence about the alcohol violation, and almost supported the license suspension.  However, the mitigating measure implemented by the owner (requiring a swiped ID at the point of sale) seemed very likely to prevent a second offense.

The second item I want to discuss is the adoption of a cooperative agreement between the City of Crystal and Hennepin County on the purchase of land that would be involved in the proposed rail connection in Crystal.

Hennepin County announced on March 11 that they had secured a purchase agreement for the land in the 5100 block of West Broadway, where Thomas Auto Body and North Suburban Towing currently sit.  This is the land the railroad would need to acquire in order to build the connection.

However, there was a question about whether Hennepin County had the authority to purchase this land outright.  The attorneys at the county felt that they would have the authority if they purchased the land under a cooperative agreement as authorized under MN law in section 383B.79.

This meant that the county would not (and maybe could not) purchase the land if Crystal did not sign a cooperative agreement.

I had, and still have, several concerns about this approach.  For one, the city of Crystal did not cooperate in a material way with the county in the acquisition of the land.  The entire deal was done by the county, and Crystal council members and staff were notified of the deal at a public rail meeting at the same time everyone else was.  I didn’t want to have the city sign a document that overstated our role in the process.

My other major concern is that I wanted to make sure that it was perfectly clear that the county was responsible for this purchase, including the full cost of acquisition and any legal costs that may arise out of the purchase.  I fully expect a legal challenge in this case, and I wasn’t going to commit the citizens of Crystal to a potentially expensive legal battle without some serious discussions about it, which were not had before this agreement was presented to us.

The initial draft of the agreement that was presented for us to vote on did not include any explicit language regarding Crystal’s financial obligations.  In fact, the entire agreement was quite vague.

All of my colleagues that were present at the meeting expressed similar reservations, and it was clear that the agreement would not be accepted in its current format.

Because the county was saying they would not purchase the property until we signed the agreement, this was a time sensitive manner.  We voted to continue the meeting from Tuesday night until Thursday night and asked for a new draft of the agreement that addressed our concerns.

The document that was presented when we reconvened included a statement that explicitly addressed that Crystal has no financial or legal obligation toward the project.  It also included some other clarifying language to address our other concerns.

The proposed agreement was passed by the council unanimously (by the members present, we were still short two members due to travel and illness).

I do believe that the county’s acquisition of the land was a good tactical move as we attempt to negotiate through the situation with the railroad connection.  But that said, the acquisition is not a “silver bullet”.  The matter is not resolved, and most likely will not be for some time.

It will require the attention and focus of the citizens of Crystal to keep themselves, and their elected officials at all levels, engaged in this process until it is ultimately resolved.

Finally, I would like to take a moment to thank council member Juile Deshler for her great work this past week.  As I mentioned above Julie is the Mayor Pro Tem which means that she has to step up when the Mayor is unavailable.  While Jim was at home with a nasty case of pneumonia, Julie had to run two council meetings, a few work sessions, deliver a State of the City address, and testify down at the capitol on rail safety.   She encountered a big unexpected challenge and really stepped up to the task.  Thanks Julie!


What The Governor’s Rail Safety Proposal Would Mean For Crystal

Last week Governor Dayton released a rail safety proposal that would seek to address rail safety concerns across Minnesota.  Since rail safety has been a hot topic in Crystal lately I thought I would take a look at what the rail safety proposal would mean for Crystal.

Earlier this week I spoke with Joanna Dornfeld, Governor Dayton’s Assistant Chief of Staff for transportation issues, to answer some of the questions I had about the plan.  Much of what I will write here came from that conversation.

First, it’s important to note that the Governor’s proposal is the result of community meetings that were held last year, and a rail safety survey that was completed before the proposed CP/BNSF connector project in Crystal was on the radar.   If the connector project were to move forward, that would most likely change what happens in regards to other projects in Crystal.  For the purposes of this review, we’ll assume a status quo where there is no CP/BNSF connection.

The Governor’s proposal identified 75 “high priority” railroad crossings across the state, with two of those being in Crystal: the CP crossings at Broadway Ave and Douglas Drive.  According to the study, those crossings were rated as “Adequate/Improvable,” meaning that the crossings have adequate safety measures (cants and gates) but could be improved to be even safer, by adding additional safety measures such as medians.

All 75 projects on the list would be funded by a new state-level assessment on railroads of $33 million per year.  The total list of 75 would cost about $330 million, so the idea would be to implement these upgrades over the period of 10 years.

It’s not known yet the order in which the projects would be addressed. I did ask if we should expect that Crystal would be at the latter end of the 10 year cycle because our crossings were rated as “adequate” but the answer was “not necessarily” because the scheduling of projects can be dependent on many other factors such as construction crew availability, railroad cooperation, other projects planned in the same area, etc.

Another part of the Governor’s proposal would change the way that property tax is calculated on railroad owned property.  The result would be an increase in property taxes paid by the railroad to the city.  The estimated amount of increase in revenue for Crystal would be about $26,000 per year.

In order to capture the additional revenue Crystal would need to increase our levy by the same amount.  If we did not, the increase paid by the railroads would offset taxes paid by other commercial businesses.

Revenue generated by this proposal would be general fund revenue for the city, and would not necessarily be dedicated to rail safety measures.

The Governor’s proposal is seeking to fund 4 grade separations in other parts of the state through bonding, though none in Crystal.  Separate from the Governor’s rail safety proposal, a bonding request has been made for a grade separation for the crossing at Douglas Drive in the MN Senate by Senator Ann Rest and in the MN House by Reps Carlson and Freiberg.

There are other details of the Governor’s proposal at this link, including the creation of a new Rail Office Director, more quiet zones, and training for first responders.

Thanks to Ms. Dornfeld at the Governor’s office for answering all my questions about this proposal, and to Rep Freiberg for connecting me with Ms. Dornfeld.

Rail Meeting Recap

We had a great meeting this morning at the Community Center regarding the proposed rail connection in Crystal.  Over 200 residents came out to learn more about the project and how they can help make an impact.

(For background on the project, click here and follow the links.)

If you couldn’t make it to the meeting, you can still help out.

The Surface Transportation Board (STB), a federal agency, is required to approve this project before it can move forward.

The STB has discretion on whether it will require a full environmental review (known as an Environmental Impact Statement or EIS) or a lesser environmental review.  It is our position that this project should require a full EIS so we can understand the impact to our community. We believe that an EIS will uncover serious issues that must be addressed before this project could go forward, if it could move forward at all.

Right now we are asking residents to contact the STB directly and request that they require a full EIS for the Crystal rail connection project.

You can help by writing a letter (handwritten is best) to the STB and our federal elected officials explaining that you are a concerned resident and that you want an EIS to happen.  (Addresses below)

We had pre-addressed post cards at available at the meeting today, and we’ll have more at City Hall on Monday afternoon.  Or, you can send it in your own envelope.

For more information, you can visit the dedicated page on the city’s website and/or the new Facebook Group for this project.

I’d also like to thank the mayors of Golden Valley, New Hope, and Robbinsdale, several council members from those cities, as well as Senator Rest, Representatives Freiberg and Carlson, Met Council Chair Adam Duininck and commissioner Mike Opat for attending the meeting today, the Crystal city staff for organizing the event, and Crystal Mayor Jim Adams for running a great meeting.

As always, if you have any questions or if I can be of assistance, please let me know.


Surface Transportation Board
Debra Miller, Acting Chairman
395 E Street SW, Washington, DC 20423

Senator Al Franken
Phone: 651-221-1016; 202-224-5641
Address: 309 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Phone: 612-727-5220; 202-224-3244
Address: 302 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510

Representative Keith Ellison
Phone: 612-522-1212; 202-225-4755
Address: 2100 Plymouth Ave N; Minnesota, MN 55411
2263 Rayburn Building, Washington, MN 20515

Council Meeting Recap – March 3, 2015

The Crystal City Council held two work sessions, an EDA Meeting, and a council meeting on March 3, 2015.

The EDA meeting was quick, with only one agenda item, the approval of the sale of one lot owned by the EDA for the asking price.

At the first work session we discussed making charitable contributions to local food shelves.  By city ordinance, 10% of the net profits of any charitable gambling operation in in Crystal must be contributed to a fund administered by the city.  The city council will then make a decision on how to distribute any money in that fund.  There is about $1,500 in the fund this year.  In past years the council has designated those funds be split between NEAR and PRISM food shelves.  We decided to continue that tradition, so each organization will get a check for $750 from that fund.

At the council meeting, we considered the second reading of two ordinances, both of which were initially discussed at the February 17 meeting.  The first amends the zoning ordinance to allow impound lots as a conditional use in the Industrial (I-1) zone.  The second amends the ordinance regulating second hand goods dealers to clarify that a store selling refurbished appliances doesn’t count as a second hand goods dealer.   Both passed unanimously, as they did at the last meeting.

The next item was a resolution outlining how the city will finance the new Public Works facility.  The project was approved under the last council (before I joined) but despite extensive, often heated discussions about how to finance the project, the group ultimately never came to a clear consensus on the matter.

That meant when I joined the council I had to quickly get up to speed on the project.  I had followed the issue as an interested citizen, so I wasn’t starting from square one.  My initial thought was that we should bond (borrow) for a portion of the project, but after an in-depth review of the financing options (pay cash, bond for some portion, or bond for all of it) the cash option is the only one that made fiscal sense.

Bonding for any portion of the building would mean a tax increase.  Bonding for the entire building would mean a huge tax increase.  The concern with the all cash option was that we would leave the city vulnerable by spending down all of our available cash and potentially cause liquidity issues down the road.

Based on the numbers that I saw from our finance department, I did not feel that was a concern.  The major building fund had $10 million in it to contribute to this project.  The utilities fund is contributing $1 million, and the EDA is contributing $650,000.  The “gap” that we needed to cover ended up being about $1 million.

We will fund that gap with a short term loan from other city funds.  While that may sound a bit hokey (it did to me, hence my initial hesitation on the all cash plan), it makes more sense when you understand that the city doesn’t have a bunch of bank accounts.  There’s one big account, and we keep money segregated into different funds “on paper” only.  Ultimately, the money all comes from the citizens of Crystal.  It’s common to transfer money from one fund to another if the balances get out of whack (one fund too high, another too low) or if needs change (as they often do).  When you add up the money that is in all of the funds, I feel that there is enough liquidity to get us through even a major emergency scenario.  If I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t have supported the all cash option.

Ultimately, I expect a little less than half of the gap will be closed at the end of 2015 by funds that have already been levied on the citizens (not a new tax).  That leaves a sizable but manageable amount to replenish in 2016.  It’s feasible that the short term loans could be fully replenished by the end of 2016, and by choosing an all cash option we avoided several hundred thousand dollars in finance charges.

The resolution approving the all cash financing plan passed 6-1, with council member Laura Libby voting in the dissent.  She preferred a financing plan that would have bonded (borrowed) for the entire cost of the project.

The next part of the meeting was near and dear to my heart, the adoption of new council rules.  Although this sounds like the most boring topic on Earth, to me it’s actually really important.

I believe that a legislative body like the council needs a clear set of rules to operate under.  If everyone understands the rules (and follows them!) it will go a long way toward diffusing conflict before it happens, and will allow the body to continue to operate even during times when there is significant disagreement between members.

Council member Casey Peak and I worked together to draft a set of rules, which were then discussed with the council at a work session.  We adopted some suggested changes from our attorney, the staff, and the full council, and the end result was the product which passed last night.

We had some goals going into the process, and I think we accomplished them:

  • To establish a set of rules governing the internal operations of the council
  • To clarify processes and expectations, decreasing conflict
  • To protect the rights of both the minority and majority, and ensure every member is heard
  • To put in place good government practices that will last beyond the existing council
  • Balance formality with flexibility
  • Develop the minimum amount of rules necessary to accomplish the goals above, in the clearest language possible

While one council cannot (and shouldn’t be able to) bind a future council to anything, I do hope that future councils continue our example of keeping in place a fair and clear set of rules that allows all members to be heard.

In order for the rules to take place, we needed to both formally adopt the rules, and then amend the ordinance that governs council procedures to accommodate the new rules.  The rules were adopted unanimously, and the first reading of the ordinance passed unanimously as well.  The ordinance will be up for a second reading at the next meeting.

After the council meeting we went into a work session that dealt with the process for interviewing applicants to advisory commissions or committees.

The council has a full review of the commission process on our plan for later this year, but we need to interview applicants for the Blue Line LRT advisory committee very soon, so now was a good time to look at our interview process and make changes.  We’ll use the new process for these interviews, and we’ll tweak it if necessary during our full review of commissions.

We had an extensive and very thoughtful discussion on the process, which I won’t attempt to recreate here, since I’m already over 1,100 words.  :)

The process we adopted is:

  • All applicants will be interviewed.
  • Interviews will be conducted by the full council (plus the commission chair, if there is one), at a work session.  Applicants will be interviewed sequentially, not as a group.
  • After all of the interviews are complete, each council member will rank the applicants, the scores will be aggregated, and the highest ranked applicant will be appointed.
  • There will be an option to hold the position open and seek additional applicants, if a majority of the council agrees it is necessary.

I will say that we looked at practices used in other cities and are more or less adopting a fairly common process though each city has slight variations.

We have a work session tomorrow (Thursday March 5) focused on council goals and priorities, and another one next week (Thursday March 12) where we will hear from the Parks Commission, which has a very lovely, beautiful and talented chair, who also happens to be my wife.  (I put that in there not only because it’s true, but to see if she actually reads my recaps.)

The next council meeting is March 17.

You can watch the video of the council meeting here and find the agendas and meeting notes here.  Audio recording of work sessions can be found here. Check the city calendar for updated meeting dates, locations and times.

Committee Testimony: HF75, Met Council Plans

Earlier this year, the Minnesota House of Representatives created a new Subcommittee on Metropolitan Council Accountability and Transparency.

I was honored to be invited to the Capitol today to testify on House Bill 75 (HF75), one of the proposed bills that the committee was hearing.

HF75 would make Met Council plans advisory in nature, meaning that a city or county could not be forced to comply or conform with Met Council projections or guidelines.

I feel that this is an incredibly important reform.  What we have seen in recent years is a Met Council that has been aggressively attempting to expand their purview over decisions that have historically been the domain of local governments.

In all 5 people spoke in favor of the proposed bill, and none spoke in opposition.  In addition to myself, testifiers included Rhonda Sivarajah, chair of the Anoka County Board of Commissioners, Kelli Slavik, Mayor of Plymouth, Mary Giuliani Stephens, Mayor of Woodbury, and an attorney representing Dakota County.

I have pasted below my testimony as prepared.  These were just my notes, so I did go a little off script during the actual testimony.  There were also some questions that the committee asked that are not reflected here.

UPDATE: Audio of the committee hearing is here.  My testimony starts around the 22 minute mark.


Mr. Chair, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Jeff Kolb, and I am a member of Crystal City Council. Prior to joining the council I served on Crystal’s Planning Commission.

Crystal is a fully developed suburb with a population of about 23,000, located just northwest of Minneapolis (first ring).
I am here in support of HF75 which would make Met Council plans and guidelines advisory in nature.

I believe this is one of the most important proposed reforms that this committee could take up.

The City of Crystal has significant concerns with the Met Council’s Thrive 2040 plan, and the direction the Met Council has taken in recent years.

I have with me today copies of several letters that were sent to the Met Council by Crystal city officials regarding our concerns.

To date, we have received no meaningful replies from the Met Council to these concerns, only an acknowledgement of receipt of our letters.

Some examples of the issues that Crystal experienced with the Thrive 2040 plan were the initial “projections”- (more like goals) that were prescribed by the Met Council for Crystal.

  • Population up by 28% (6,149)
  • Number of households 35% (3,217)
  • Employment 55% (2,171)

In a fully developed city with no new land.

Revised “projections”

  • Population up by 5% (1,149)
  • Number of households 9% (817)
  • Employment 40% (1,571)

For some context, during the years of 2000-2007, Crystal had a net gain of 179 housing units, an average of 22 per year. Those numbers dropped off dramatically during the post 2008 recession. The initial Thrive 2040 projections would have required 107 units per year be added in Crystal, or 5 times the historical rate. The revised projections would require 27.5 units per year, still a rate higher than during the “boom” years.

At the same time, Crystal is “projected” to add 1500 jobs, presumably in the same land that would be used to add housing units.

Clearly there is a disconnect between reality and these projections.
The practical effect on a city like Crystal is that we are required, by law, to create a comprehensive plan.

Our city objects to language in the Met Council’s Thrive 2040 plan that seems to mandate that Crystal amend our comprehensive plan to accommodate these “projections,” including a mandate for density minimums.

There are several other areas throughout the Thrive 2040 plan where the Met Council seems to overstep its statutory authority by attempting to mandate the adoption of certain transportation and streets policies that have historically been, and should remain the purview of local governments.

These encroachments on local government authority are not specific to Thrive 2040, but rather are common place throughout Met Council plans.

I would like to read a brief excerpt from a letter sent to the Met Council in September of 2014 by Crystal City Staff in response to the Council’s Draft Housing Policy Plan.

“As the city discussed in its April 18, 2014 letter regarding Thrive MSP 2040, the city objects to the Council’s treatment of housing as if it were a regional system on par with transportation, sewers, and so forth. For good reason the Land Planning Act does not include housing as a regional system because it is predominately privately-owned, in contrast to the statutory regional systems which are public facilities. The Land Planning Act does not speak of density, only that a city must provide adequate housing to meet the city’s share of existing and projected needs. Crystal is a fully developed community, and its housing is already predominantly affordable when compared with regional averages. The Council is using high density as a proxy for affordability, thus twisting an affordability requirement into a density mandate and exceeding its statutory authority.”

Today there are a number of punitive measures that the Met Council can take against a city that does not comply with their mandated “projections” including denying grant funding or even suing a city to force a change to their comprehensive plan, as has happened in the past.

By passing HF75, you would clarify that Met Council plans are indeed advisory in nature, not binding documents that can be used to infringe on the ability of cities to govern themselves.

Thank you.

West Metro Fire-Rescue Meeting Recap, February 18, 2015

The West Metro Fire-Rescue District Board of Directors met on February 18, 2015.  I was appointed to be Crystal’s representative on the West Metro board earlier this year, and this was my first meeting.

The meeting kicked off in a fun way- with the swearing in of 9 new firefighters and one new lieutenant (pictured above).

After that we headed back into the meeting room to get the meeting started.

We first dealt with some old business- things that were discussed at the end of last year before I became a director.  We passed a revision to the by-laws that was made redundant by recent changes to the joint powers agreement, accepted the chief’s 2015 goals for the department, and discussed how the department will allocate donations it receives from the West Metro Relief Association.  The Relief Association has a charitable wing that earns revenue from charitable gambling (and other sources), which is in turn sometimes donated to the department.  For instance, the Relief Association donated $7,500 to the department at Wednesday’s meeting.  The discussion was about where the donated money would be allocated, and a few accounts were identified for those funds.

Next we went on to new business- approving the purchase of a new Chevy Tahoe to replace an old Ford Expedition, approving the purchase of some furniture for sleeping quarters for when firefighters spend the night at the station (during extreme cold weather or when they need to be on standby for major events), and the purchase of some iPads which will replace old laptops that are at the end of life.

The only item on the agenda that generated any significant discussion among the directors was the next item, which is a plan to replace 3 part time fire inspectors with one full time inspector.  The department has had turnover in their part time inspector ranks and feels this will be mitigated by going to a full time inspector instead.  I had concerns with this approach on two fronts- 1) that we are trading 72 hours per week of inspection time for 40 hours, and that 2) the cost went up to do so, based on an increase in wages, benefits and pension for full time employees.

The chief felt that the increase in productivity and decrease in expense based on lack of turnover would justify the new plan.

In the end it seemed that I was the only director who had any reservations, and the item ended up passing .  I did end up voting in the affirmative, as I didn’t feel I had enough information to vote against the measure, and decided to trust the judgement of department management on this issue.

Next we moved on to preliminary discussion about the 2016 budget.  Although it’s only February, the West Metro budget needs to be started now, because it must be approved by the councils of both New Hope and Crystal, and that needs to be done before the cities can work on their budgets.

So we’ll be discussing the budget in more detail at the next meeting.

One thing that I need to mention is the fifth annual “Firefighters Fighting Hunger” food drive.  It will be held on March 21 this year.

Last year our firefighters collected enough food and cash to provide over 10,000 meals! Please see this link for more details including where to drop off food.

West Metro’s board meets every other month, so the next meeting is April 8 at 6:30 PM at First Station 3 in New Hope (next to New Hope city hall).

Council Meeting Recap – February 17, 2015

The Crystal City Council held Citizen Input Time, two work sessions, an EDA meeting, and a council meeting on February 17, 2015.

While trains dominated the discussion this week, this recap is going to skip discussion of anything involving trains.  Please see this post from councilmember Olga Parsons and/or this post from me for more details on that issue, including what you can do to help out.

Citizen Input Time is a time when citizens can come address the council on any topic in a more informal setting than during the council meeting.  There is usually a session scheduled once a month prior to a council meeting, except during the summer.  Check the schedule for upcoming dates.

We heard from three citizens at Citizen Input Time.  Two on the train issue, and one on an issue regarding a pond located near The Heathers.  Staff is following up on the pond issue, which has been ongoing.

At the first work session the Human Rights Commission presented their 2015 work plan.  We’ll have more on this soon as the  council discusses generally what our strategy will be regarding commissions.

Now, on to the regular meeting, which kicked off in an exciting way- with a proclamation from Mayor Adams that February 18, 2015 is Matt Borchers Day in Crystal.  Matt is an amazing young man who achieved the rare goal of earning all 139 Boy Scout merit badges before his eighteenth birthday.  Read more about Matt and his accomplishment here.

The next item on the agenda was a public hearing related to the allocation of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds.  The CDBG is a federal program that has been in existence since the Ford administration.  Crystal receives about $100,000 each year from the federal government under this program, and we have some limited choices on how to allocate these funds.

Historically, Crystal has put all of our CDBG funding into a deferred home improvement loan program.  This allows residents who meet an income requirement to apply for a loan to improve their home. If they stay in their home for 15 years, the loan is forgiven.  If they sell, it must be paid back.

Demand for this program varies from year to year, but last year we ended with a waiting list of residents who wanted to take advantage of it.

We do have the discretion of allocating some of our CDBG funds to other limited purposes, such as certain social services organizations. Each year we do get some requests from organizations seeking part of Crystal’s CDBG allocation.  These organizations typically receive funding from the CDBG allocation of other cities, and want to also receive funding from Crystal.

There was discussion this year, as there was last year, to change our allocation to provide social services funding.  There are many great social services organizations that operate in our area, and they can each make a very compelling case for funding.

However, the deferred home improvement loan program has been working, and working well in Crystal since the 1980’s, and the goals of that program align with the intent of the CDBG program.   Other cities have not seen the same level of success with the loan program, and have ended the year with unspent funds.  In those situations, it may make sense to allocate to other programs, but that isn’t the reality in Crystal.  We have the opposite situation, where we don’t have enough funds to meet the demands of an established program.

There was a motion to change our allocation for 2015 to include social services funding, which failed 5-2.  The vote to allocate 100% of the CDBG funding to the deferred home improvement program passed 6-1.

We had a few non-controversial issues next, including approving the transfer of a liquor license to a new owner, appointing two new members of the planning commission, ordering a feasibility study for phase 8 of the alley reconstruction program, and authorizing the purchase of some planned equipment for the new public works facility.

Next we moved on to the consideration of a change in our zoning ordinance to allow impound lots as a conditional use in the industrial zone.  This was prompted by the rail project, which would take the land of North Suburban Towing, which has been operating an impound lot in Crystal for decades.

Our current zoning doesn’t allow impound lots anywhere in the city.  North Suburban Towing is allowed to stay where they are indefinitely because they are “grandfathered in”.  However with the railroad potentially taking their land, they would be forced to move, and our ordinances would prohibit them from relocating in Crystal.

So unless we change the ordinance we’d lose a long time business because they had to relocate through no fault of their own.

The new ordinance allows impound lots in our industrial zones, subject to a few restrictions including minimum lot size and fencing requirements.

The ordinance change was passed unanimously, and there will be a second reading in the next few weeks.  (All ordinance changes require two readings, giving the public multiple opportunities to weigh in.)

We also considered the change of the ordinance governing second hand goods dealers, as it was found that it would apply to a new business who wants to sell refurbished appliances, which was not the intent of the original law.  To solve the issue we listed refurbished appliances as an exception.  That change also passed unanimously.

That was the last item on the regular meeting agenda.

After that we had a quick EDA meeting where we authorized some plat changes to allow us to sell part of an irregularly shaped lot held by the city to the adjacent homeowners.  It basically takes a triangle shaped lot and makes it a rectangle.  We’d sell the other triangle pieces to the property owners who back up to the lot, making their lots more regularly shaped as well.

After the EDA meeting we went into a work session focused on trains.

The next meeting and Work Session will be Tuesday, March 3.

You can watch the video of the council meeting here and find the agendas and meeting notes here.  Audio recording of work sessions can be found here. Check the city calendar for updated meeting dates, locations and times.

Proposed Train Connection: What You Can Do

My colleague Olga Parsons wrote a great recap of the latest round of updates on the train situation, so if you want the details, please head over to her site to check it out.

In the meantime, many of you have asked what specific actions you can take to make an impact.

Our Federal elected officials need to hear from you on the importance of this issue.  The Surface Transportation Board, a Federal agency, has some discretion on whether or not it will require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before the connection can proceed.  We need to do everything we can to make sure that a full environmental review is performed.

Please consider contacting our Federal officials by phone, mail, or email.  Ask them to petition the Surface Transportation Board to require a full Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed rail connection in Crystal.

Senator Al Franken
Phone: 651-221-1016; 202-224-5641
Address: 309 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Phone: 612-727-5220; 202-224-3244
Address: 302 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510

Representative Keith Ellison
Phone: 612-522-1212; 202-225-4755
Address: 2100 Plymouth Ave N; Minnesota, MN 55411
2263 Rayburn Building, Washington, MN 20515


Also, Governor Dayton wrote a letter to the acting chair of the STB today, and it does a good job of succinctly explaining the issue.  Check out that letter here.

As always, if you have any questions or if I can be of assistance, please let me know.

Seeking Applicants for Light Rail Advisory Committees

The city of Crystal is currently seeking applicants for four (4) representatives to Metro Blue Line Extension (BLRT) Advisory committees.

We have two positions on the Community Advisory Committee, which represents our community and residents, and two positions on the Business Advisory Committee, which represents our business community.

These are new positions on new committees.  The committees will jointly advise the Met Council and Hennepin County on the proposed Blue Line Light Rail project that would go through Crystal.

Committee members will be appointed by the city council and will serve a two year term (through December 2016).

If you are interested in providing feedback about the Light Rail project in Crystal, this is your opportunity to formally join the process.

The deadline to apply is 4:30 PM on February 27.  To apply, or to see the job descriptions which will provide more information about the positions, click here for the application packet.

If you have any questions about the process, please contact me.


Update on Proposed Rail Connection

Today the city posted a new information packet about the proposed rail project that I wrote about a few days ago.

The packet is a summary of what we currently know about the project.  Not too many of the details have changed since last time- this update basically confirms much of what was rumored, though some new detail is provided about the permitting process that the railroads will need to go through in order to make this connection.

Since the last update a number of meetings have happened:

  • Crystal city staff has had a face-to-face meeting with representatives from Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF)  to gain clarification about details surrounding the project.
  • Our staff also held a meeting with our legislative delegation (Reps Carlson and Frieberg & Senator Rest) some legislators from Minneapolis, a member of the Minneapolis Park Board, representatives from Robbinsdale and Golden Valley, and a senior transportation policy advisor to Governor Dayton to discuss a coordinated approach to responding to this project.
  • Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat had a discussion with Senator Klobuchaur’s office to try to engage our federal officials on the matter.

This project should require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before it can proceed, but there is a concern that BNSF may be trying to circumvent or evade this process.  Crystal city staff will be following up directly with the Surface Transportation Board (STB), which is the federal agency that regulates this type of rail activity to try to ensure an EIS is required.

If an EIS is found to be required, there will be a public comment period, which will be the chance for Crystal residents to formally provide feedback about this project.

There is a good chance the Crystal Council will be discussing a resolution opposing this project at the next council meeting on February 17.  While this type of resolution would not give us the authority to stop the project, resolutions like this can be used as a tool to clearly state the city’s formal position on a topic.

Finally, I have received a few question regarding “quiet zones.”  When a quiet zone is implemented that means trains passing through the area would not use their horns.  We are looking into what it would take to implement quiet zones in Crystal as part of the overall discussion regarding freight rail.  I don’t have any more details on that yet, but I have requested information from our staff, and requested that quiet zones are discussed in any meetings about this project.

As always, I will post more once I know more, and will do my best to answer questions where I can.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.