West St. Paul City Council Recap: March 25, 2019

Last night’s West St. Paul city council meeting was mostly routine business and well-deserved city boosting. But it also included a seemingly benign change that turned contentious. It resulted in the first non-unanimous votes in Mayor Dave Napier’s new tenure.

City Boosting

  • The food drive in support of Neighbors Inc. continues, and all indications are that West St. Paul is crushing neighboring South St. Paul. You can get details about where and how to donate at WSPFoodDrive.com.
  • Mayor Napier and Council member Lisa Eng-Sarne were among the many volunteers who joined the effort to fill sandbags in South St. Paul as the Mississippi River rises.
  • The West St. Paul Days organizers gave an update about this year’s events, which are coming in May, including a combined City Hall open house and festival at Harmon Park.
  • Mayor Napier honored former council member and city manager Tom Hoban, who passed away recently with a proclamation for his long list of service to the city.
  • A report on the city’s shared volunteer program highlighted that it’s saved the city $78,000. The program also boasts 470 volunteers in West St. Paul.

Routine Business

Mostly routine business conducted during the meeting included:

  • Public hearings for a temporary parking/no-parking ordinance, vacating a storm sewer easement for the HyVee development, and a gas and electric franchise fee ordinance.
  • As part of the DARTS senior housing project on Wentworth behind WalMart, a new crosswalk is being added across Wentworth to give access to the library. This is one of the concerns raised when the DARTS project was being considered, so it’s good to see it addressed. Even better is that the cost is being split between Dakota County and DARTS, with no cost to the city. The crosswalk will be part of the county’s construction project on Wentworth this summer, which will include adding a median (yay for safer medians!) that will allow for a pedestrian refuge in the crosswalk, making it easier and safer to cross.
  • A final plat was approved for HyVee, which includes right-in access from Robert Street (but MNDoT rejected right-out access), another step forward in this project.

Inflow/Infiltration Contention

Finally, the only real contentious moment of the night came from proposed changes to the Inflow/Infiltration (I/I) ordinance. This has been a confusing and complicated issue in West St. Paul, but the short version is: Due to aging infrastructure, West St. Paul sees a lot of rain water enter the sanitary sewer. This puts an increased burden on water treatment, and the Met Council has cracked down on the problem, threatening cities with steep fines if they don’t make changes. To address the problem, West St. Paul instituted an inspection process and mandated repairs when the house sells.

Two changes were proposed to the I/I ordinance:

  • Inspection changes: Some tweaks and clarifications were made to the inspection language that give the city more teeth to require homeowners to make clean outs accessible for inspection and also implement a fine when homeowners don’t show up for a scheduled inspection.
  • Interest change: West St. Paul allows homeowners to be assessed for the cost of repairs over 10 years, with added interest. The rate is being changed from a straight 3% to cost plus 2%. Because interest rates are variable, the straight 3% meant that the city was often shouldering more of the cost of the loan. This change also brings this ordinance in line with out financing options the city offers.

Council member Anthony Fernandez took issue with the I/I ordinance as a whole, and refused to support any changes to the ordinance other than a total repeal: “I’ll never be in favor of anything in regards to this.”

In the past, Fernandez has supported other changes to the I/I ordinance (such as a July 10, 2017 change that required sump pump issues to be addressed within 30 days instead of at the point of sale).

Council member Eng-Sarne asked what the alternative was—from further discussion it’s an annual fine of over $2 million imposed by the Met Council, and the city attorney noted they have a strong enforcement mechanism.

Council member John Justen proposed passing the inspection changes and pushing the interest changes back to an open council work session (OCWS) for further discussion.

Council member Bob Pace expressed frustration at any ordinance that mandated residents do something and wanted to push back on the Met Council.

An initial vote to push all the changes back to OCWS for more discussion failed 3-2 when Fernandez and Justen voted no (Council member Dick Vitelli was absent, and four votes are required to pass). A second vote to pass the inspection changes and push the interest changes to OCWS also failed when Fernandez and Pace voted no.

So where do we go from here? We’ll see if the council continues to discuss these potential changes and the wider conversation with the Met Council.

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