Mark Voerding answers questions for St. Paul City Council

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Mark Voerding is the fifth candidate answering a standard list of questions for all the candidates of Ward 1 for St Paul City Council. I requested brief answers, no more than 300 words. I like the depth of understanding of property taxes in the first question. Hopefully, this will entice you to read more.

1) What do you think the job of city council person should accomplish?

The primary responsibility of city government is delivery of services. The job of a city council member is to see that the best possible services are delivered to residents and property owners in an efficient, equitable manner regardless of where people live or work in the city, their income, race, religion or even the amount of taxes they pay. This is done successfully with attention to detail, an understanding of the city budget and budget process, an understanding of the city itself including the unique attributes of each neighborhood, an understanding of the roles and activities of each department and an understanding of the finance structure. In Saint Paul’s case, only 21.4% of the revenue comes from property taxes and only 26% of a property’s tax bill goes to the city. The budget picture is further complicated by the fact that about 25% of the property in the city does not pay taxes yet receives the same services as those that do pay.

A second responsibility is to insure that public investment beyond the primary services achieves the intended purpose. That purpose must include some or all of the following:

  • Rebuilding the public infrastructure;
  • Improvements to public parks, recreational and open space for access to all citizens;
  • Rebuilding neighborhoods;
  • Improving the property tax base;
  • Return on the investment to the taxpayers including long-term employment opportunities.

The third task is to be a voice for all of the district yet balance competing needs and interests for the long-term benefit of all residents. A city council member is also in a unique position to also speak out against injustice and pursue the means necessary to bring it to light, correct it and prevent it.

2) What is your background? How does this background make you the better choice for city council person?

I have lived my entire life in this city in the Midway, Frogtown and Summit-University areas. I am a graduate of Hamline University and earned a Masters Degree in Public Administration there. I have

  • served on the District 7 Planning Council and served as its president;
  • chaired the District 7 Employment Program;
  • served on the East University Avenue Business Association;
  • along with Bill Heustis started University United;
  • served on the District 8 Planning Council;
  • Served on the Ramsey Hill Association Board of Directors;
  • Served on a number of city committees, including the Liquor License Task Force and the District Planning Council Funding Task Force;
  • And have been appointed to represent the city of Saint Paul on a number of state and regional task forces and boards including the Regional Rail Joint Powers Board.

I have also spent over 20 years working for elected officials who have represented every part of this district. I have learned from the best and my goal is to continue in that tradition for this community. This district continues to be the most diverse in the entire east metro area yet it works because the people living here and working here want that diversity. I am the only candidate that brings this broad-based experience and representation to the ward.

3) What are the unique characteristics of your city council area?

There are eight distinct neighborhoods (Frogtown, Aurora-St. Anthony, Summit-University, Ramsey Hill, Lexington-Hamline, Snelling-Hamline, Capital Area/Mount Airy and North End/South Como). Within the ward and within the neighborhoods there are also unique qualities based on the people who live there. As a result, this district continues to be the most diverse Minnesota community east of the Mississippi River. By economics. By race. By religion. And by background. It has a history of this richness since the area was developed and continues to be a microcosm of the country. It once held the third and fourth professional baseball stadiums in the city and was home to a successful professional African-American team. And it prospered despite the deep division created by I-94.

But it is not without competing interests as various groups strive to maintain an identity or new ones try to bring attention to their own. For instance, as Southeast Asian businesses grow, long-term, businesses find their own identity and sometimes customer base, being lost. University Avenue itself is an evolving business community. LRT not-withstanding, it always has been as immigrants moved to Saint Paul. It will continue to do so.

4) What three goals would you hope to accomplish as city council person?

First, I believe that light rail transit will be a driving force of change well into the future. I have long supported LRT in the Central Corridor and helped develop the first LRT design for University Avenue with ¼ mile stops to serve this community as a transit system not as a pass-through system. While that plan did not receive funding, the need for full and public discussion about proposed and future development must include the neighborhood residents and businesses. To date, that has not happened but will if I am elected.

Secondly, strategically, we need to support and protect existing businesses, create opportunities for new entrepreneurs, and to bring in larger employers to fill in the spaces in the Maxson Steel/Dale Street Shops, the Minnehaha Lanes site and Empire Builder Park. Neighborhood residents need to be able to find well-paying jobs without long commutes on inadequate bus service or crowded freeways. Living wage jobs near people’s homes is the true green policy.

Third, the continued destruction of houses in this community and in the city as a whole has been devastating, especially in Frogtown. The city needs to end its “tear down at any cost” policy because it is simply a re-invention of the failed urban renewal policies of the 1970’s. The city needs to work harder to get people into the houses who have the capacity to rebuild them. That builds community. And the city must provide owners with the option to sell Level 3 vacant properties in an “as is” condition so that new residents can use their skills, talents and resources to build equity and re-build neighborhoods. Under the current ordinances the Irvine Park and Ramsey Hill areas, two of the city’s “desirable” neighborhoods, would have been leveled.

5) Since the city council involves negotiation of competing interests, please give an example where you successfully negotiated a difficult problem among multiple parties.

Zoning and other land use issues are the most difficult matters to deal with for any city. They generate long public hearings and sometimes legal challenges that test the system, become a financial burden for both the appellants and the city and sometimes divide neighbors and break long friendships. Property owners want to exercise their rights as they see them while neighbors want to protect their own interests. Change is not always appreciated and there is often a winner and a loser in these cases.

While serving on district councils and as a city council aide on several occasions I have been able to get parties to agree on special conditions that would allow a project or use to proceed and yet would not significantly impact the abutting properties. This was something as simple as fence design, hours of operation, building height, building design or lot coverage. One of the most difficult and complex issues was finding locations for adult uses that met constitutional requirements yet was agreeable to city council members.

6) When do you think it is alright for the city council to give special financial consideration to a single business?

I don’t support special financial considerations except for cases of extreme necessity. And in doing so there must be a long-term financial gain for the city and the taxpayers. An example would be public investment to clean up brownfields that are then filled with businesses bringing new, living-wage, long-term jobs or affordable housing such as Energy Park on the edge of Ward 1. Another example I would support is financial assistance to current businesses along University Avenue that have suffered the consequences of LRT construction as well as the loss of parking. To provide help to new businesses without consideration for the old puts them at a competitive disadvantage and encourages gentrification.

The practice of providing special assistance to current businesses to keep them in the city, such as the loan to Macy’s is falling to corporate blackmail.

In this vein, the city also needs to be more judicious about the use of tax increment financing and work to close out districts as soon as possible. To do otherwise, as recent city councils have been doing, has placed an added burden on current taxpayers with little future benefit.

7) Please provide an example where you stood up for people or for rights against a powerful organization.

One of my initial involvements in the political process was to fight for new sewers in Frogtown where I lived. At that time sanitary and storm water sewers were combined and residents suffered basements flooded with raw sewage during heavy rains. The city took the position that separation was too expensive and other areas would not get capital improvements to streets, parks, playgrounds, etc. for many years because such an undertaking would consume all available dollars for several years. As a community, and as a member of the planning council we were able to successfully organize and force the city to develop a plan and funding mechanism outside of the CIB process.

While at the city council I was also involved in the effort to bring (then) NSP to the table to negotiate a new franchise agreement, helped pass the Human Rights Ordinance, helped write and pass the hate crimes ordinance and worked on the effort to allow women to work as Saint Paul firefighters.

8) Please tell us why your campaign is better choice (i.e. more organized, works harder, works smarter) with specifics?

Every campaign can claim to be the best organized, hardest working, etc. Having managed and participated in many successful campaigns I will say that my own campaign is a grass-roots effort focusing on individualized contact with as many residents as possible in the coming months along with adequate financial resources for print and other materials to get a strong message to the public. I will be using all of the tools needed to run an effective, competitive campaign and I have a strong base of support in each of the neighborhoods in Ward 1.

9) Please tell us how you as an elected official or your campaign would help other DFL endorsed candidates get into office?

I have worked on campaigns for many elected officials, both statewide and locally. I would encourage my own campaign workers to assist qualified candidates and I would help candidates raise funds as I have done in the past.

10) If you could magically fix one thing about the city of St Paul right now, what would that one thing be and why?

There are no magic fixes for Saint Paul. Any change requires work, getting input from the public and building a consensus. However, if elected, my first goal is to stop the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods by the city (see #4 above) and create opportunities for new homeowners to rehab vacant properties, rebuild neighborhoods and rebuild the tax base – one block at a time if need be.

Related to this, my second goal is to keep people in there homes. Seniors face the very real possibility of being forced out of their homes and mobile owners are leaving the city because of the high property taxes. To stop this trend I believe we need to bring downtown back to being a major contributor to the property tax structure. At one time the downtown area carried the city while residential neighborhoods were contributors. And University Avenue had the highest collection of sales taxes in the state. Three things changed: First, auto dealers left the city for more space in the suburbs while malls with spacious parking and fresh appearances pulled retail customers from the downtown core and University Avenue; second, the change in the property tax rates by the legislature in the early 2000’s reduced the burden for commercial properties and transferred it to residential properties; and third, the use of tax increment financing has pulled much of the increased property tax increment in downtown for other uses further adds to the tax burden for residential properties. Now, the Central Corridor is the target for more tax increment financing districts.

An effort to change that will be a two-step process: First, we need to go to the legislature and re-think the property tax structure so that the tax on commercial properties better reflects the costs compared to residential property. The second, as I stated above, is to stop the use of tax increments to fund the city budget, use TIF more judiciously and close down districts as soon as possible. In lieu of that, the city council must look for other options such as revising the policy on assessments for services or requiring payments-in-lieu-of-taxes from non-profit institutions, neither of which is a preferred choice.