Duluth has a well-deserved reputation for its contentious mayoral races. But this year is different. For the first time in its history, Duluth will have an uncontested mayoral election.
Although unprecedented, it is not too surprising that Mayor Don Ness does not have a challenger for his re-election bid in November. He was elected with bi-partisan support (though DFL-endorsed, his contributor list read like a who’s who of the chamber of commerce) and while not everyone agrees with what he has done or how he has done it, most feel he has been a good mayor. One brilliant move on Ness’ part was scheduling time to meet with citizens individually to discuss any concerns or specific problems they are having with the city. These meetings are held in the evening on a first-come first-serve basis and have been a huge success, likely contributing to his 81% approval rating.
After getting off to a rather bumpy start and going through three administrative assistants in under 2 years, Ness began to tackle the touchy issues of retiree health care and an aging infrastructure that his predecessors had simply kicked down the road.
The controversy surrounding the underfunded retiree healthcare liability was perhaps the most difficult. The central issue is this: are retirees entitled to receive the health care benefits they negotiated in their union contract or should they receive the same benefits that current employees receive? The administration decided to place retirees in the same plan as current employees. The retirees filed suit, insisting they were entitled to benefits as agreed to under their union contract. The case is currently before the Minnesota Supreme Court. Public opinion is split on this issue, with trade unionists on the side of the retirees.
Ness has also faced a huge problem with an aging sanitary sewer system that causes overflows into Lake Superior during heavy rains. This placed Ness directly in the middle between angry homeowners who were singled out to replace leaking lateral lines, and the EPA, which said ‘fix the problem or else’. The City decided to add a monthly surcharge on every resident’s water bill in order to make assistance available to those who were being required to make the expensive repairs. Obviously, the homeowners who needed to make the repairs were happy; the others not so much.
Repairing Duluth’s long-neglected roads was another challenge. A common joke around town is ‘Welcome to Duluth…bump BUMP bump CLUNK’. Local media outlets even started lines for residents to report the worst potholes. But the administration has made good progress with its plan to fix 100 roads in 5 years.
And then there is the budget.
Duluthians have seen dramatic budget cuts in all areas, including libraries and its prized system of parks and trails. Most don’t blame Ness for the significant cuts in services, realizing that it is the fault of the state for cutting LGA payments. Much of the conflict stems from exactly which services and programs to cut. Ness has made almost everyone mad at some point about his choices, but there is a common feeling of ‘at least he’s trying’ and a recognition that there are no easy solutions.
It is Ness’ attempts to raise more revenue to compensate for the loss of state aid that have gone over like a lead balloon with citizens who are fed up with fees and already being taxed to death by the city, county and school district (thank you, Tim Pawlenty). The most notorious was the imposition of a fee for street lights. That little gem ended up in Jay Leno’s monologue on the Tonight Show.
But things are about to get even worse for the Air-Conditioned City.
As the result of the Republican ‘protect the millionaires’ budget, the City of Duluth is facing a $3.5 million reduction in state aid. The situation looks grim for Duluthians, who have already seen services cut to the bone.
Perhaps the mayor is running unopposed simply because others do not want the job.
It wouldn’t surprise me a bit.