Median on South Robert Street in West St. Paul

Robert Street Debt: Where Do 2018 West St. Paul Candidates Stand?

With the coming general election on November 6 and the mayor and three city council seats on the ballot, I’ve been asking our local candidates some questions.

First, let’s hear about Robert Street debt:

The Robert Street project is now finished, but paying for it is not. Like any major project, bonds were issued and we’ll have an increased debt obligation on the city budget. How will you approach this challenge?

I sent that question to [most of] the candidates on September 5 and gave them September 26 as a deadline. Here are their responses:

Candidates for Mayor

There are two candidates for mayor: Anthony Fernandez and Dave Napier.

Anthony Fernandez

(campaign site)

Aggressive redevelopment and expanding our tax base will be my primary focus as Mayor. The people will decide this Fall if we should further explore a sales tax option to increase revenues to the city. We have been told by our leaders for years that we must keep lobbying the State for $12 million in additional funding for Robert Street, but that funding appears to be unlikely at this point so we need to plan accordingly.

Dave Napier

(campaign site)

The debt for Robert Street has been spread out over the next 15 years. The City will slow down a bit on some capital projects that we otherwise would have started in the next few years. City Hall and Police and Fire will not receive major reconstruction, we will however continue to make necessary repairs and improvements to those facilities. We will also scale down the parks projects. I will continue to lobby our state legislators because the State must step up to provide additional support to the City of West St Paul, whether it is additional funds for Street projects, Inflow and Infiltration support or an annual increase in our Local Government Aid (LGA) allocation.

Candidates for Ward 1 City Council

There is only one candidate for Ward 1: Dick Vitelli is running unopposed.

Dick Vitelli

(no campaign site)

Continue to lobby our Legislators to correct the situation.

Candidates for Ward 2 City Council

There are two candidates for Ward 2: John Justen and Jim Probst.

John Justen

(campaign site)

The main thing we need to do regarding this debt obligation is to continue to fight for the state to pay their fair share of the cost. After this election, there will be new people within all levels of state government, and hopefully a more functional legislature capable of passing through the appropriate amount of additional funding. I am happy to work in conjunction with our local representatives to keep advocating for this as the only fair alternative. If the residents of West Saint Paul pass the local sales tax (which, to be clear, can not be used to pay down the debt, but can defray other necessary city costs) I will also support that being passed through the legislature and will vote to support it when it comes before the new council.

Jim Probst

(no campaign site)

We in W St Paul will have a chance to vote on the sale tax. However, there are several more hoops to jump through before we can even start implementing this tax. We need to expand our tax base by getting more businesses in W St Paul, we spent 30 million dollars making Robert Street beautiful, now is time to sell it. l know we have been promised $12 million from the State years ago but we can’t count on it, I will work hard to try to keep them to their word.

Candidates for Ward 3 City Council

There are two candidates for Ward 3: Wendy Berry and David Meisinger.

Wendy Berry

(campaign site)

The Robert Street project is finished and whether or not we agree with how it was done. It had to be done due to the lack of attention it received over time. Now, it’s time to move past that and figure out how to pay for it in a way that will impact our residents the least. It’s going to need to involve several different things because there’s no one answer that will resolve this issue.

Because Robert Street is a state highway, we need to continue partnering with our state level government and leveraging those relationships to secure any available funding we can to apply towards that debt. With the upcoming election, there could be changes that would allow us an opportunity to make that happen. Representative Rick Hansen and Senator Matt Klein have stood by us at the Capitol as we’ve asked for this funding. I have no doubt that they’ll continue doing that because they understand the burden it brings to our residents. They’re well aware of the amount of sales tax West St. Paul contributes to the state each year, with an abundance of that coming from the retailers that line Robert Street.

We need to attract more business to replace the empty storefronts that have lined Robert Street for the last several years. It’s important to promote economic development in that area with places that will bring people to West St. Paul to spend their money in our city contributing money in sales tax. The right businesses that fit our city’s demographics will make the biggest impact now and have the best chance at sustainability. We need to be transparent in these efforts to make sure we’re not walking into a situation like we did with the vacant K-Mart building.

We also have the option of the .5% sales tax increase that residents can vote on in November. Knowing anyone that travels down Robert Street or anywhere else in West St. Paul will be paying the slight increase in sales tax and contributing to this debt gives us the opportunity to spread the responsibility of making it up faster. The increase won’t impact clothing or most groceries, so our everyday purchases won’t be impacted that much. A $100 purchase will only see 50 cent increase; a $5000 purchase would only increase by $25. Thirty other cities in Minnesota do this. Minneapolis tacks on taxes for lodging, liquor, entertainment, transit improvement, etc. all depending on what you’re buying, but that doesn’t deter people from going there. West St. Paul voters can choose the outcome of this later this year.

In short, we have options. We don’t need to go right to scaring people by talking about immediately raising property taxes. While we’ve seen increases in our property taxes, Robert Street isn’t the sole reason for that. We have to make smart decisions to make this happen and we have to work together, not only within city council, but outside the confines of West St. Paul, to make that happen.

David Meisinger

(no campaign site)

[Per a request from David Meisinger threatening to report me to the police for harassment if I ever contact him again, I did not ask Meisinger this question and therefore have no response to share.]

Vote on November 6

The general election is on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. The West St. Paul city website has details on where and how to vote, including a handy ward map in case you’re wondering which ward you live in. You can also vote early with an absentee ballot, either by mail or by stopping at the Dakota County offices.

If you’d like more information on the candidates, there have been and will be several candidate forums:

Thank you to the candidates for taking the time to respond to my questions.

(Full disclosure: I have donated to the campaigns of Dave Napier and Wendy Berry.)

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