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Chaska Area Election Results and Quick Analysis

State Senate District 47:  Julianne Ortman (63.8%) def. Jim Weygand (36.0%)

State House District 47A:  Ernie Leidiger (62.5%) def. Keith Pickering (37.3%)

The two challenged legislative incumbents cruise to victories with margins somewhat smaller than 2010.  Probably the biggest change for Ortman, Leidiger, and Joe Hoppe (who was unopposed in House District 47B) is that they will be working again from the legislative minorities, as the DFL flipped the script on the GOP and retook both houses of the Legislature.  In fact, with the current results showing the DFL having a 39-28 lead in the Senate and 73-61 in the House, the DFL is poised to have larger majorities the next two years than the Republicans did in the previous two.

This will mean a significant loss in power for Ortman and Hoppe, who chaired committees when in the majority, but both will still be well-positioned to work on a bipartisan basis on critical issues.  Although Ortman and the DFL majorities are out of step on many tax issues, fulfilling the promise of fundamental tax reform will require hard work from both parties to craft the best solution.  Hoppe has worked well with many DFLers in the past, including Rep. Joe Atkins, who may very well end up taking the gavel on the Commerce Committee.

This will also be a challenge for Leidiger.  His first term was rather unproductive (only one bill signed into law, placing him in the bottom quarter of the GOP freshmen), and that was with a Republican majority.  Is Leidiger only interested in being a lightning rod backbencher, or is he capable of more?  If he is capable of more, now is the time to show it.

Carver County Commissioner District 1:  Gayle Degler (60.6%) def. John Siegfried (38.7%)

Carver County Commissioner District 2:  Tom Workman (58.1%) def. Cheryl Ayotte (41.5%)

Carver County Commissioner District 3:  Randy Maluchnik (67.0%) def. Vince Beaudette (32.3%)

Carver County Commissioner District 4:  Tim Lynch (63.4%) def. Frank Long (36.2%)

Carver County Commissioner District 5:  Jim Ische (53.3%) def. Jim Walter (46.3%)

The five incumbents all win re-election.  The notable thing here is that for the second cycle in a row, the Republican-endorsed challengers all lost.  As I’ve said before, this is a losing strategy for the local Republican Party.  County issues are not partisan issues, and voters don’t appreciate partisan warfare being brought where it doesn’t belong.

Eastern Carver County School Board:  Heather Nelson (25.0%), Amy Logue (24.0%) and Jeff Ross (19.2%) def. Jim Leone (17.8%) and Larry Doran (13.4%).

The housecleaning is complete with this vote, as Jim Leone is the last long-term incumbent on the Board is swept out of office.  Highly qualified newcomers Logue and Ross join Nelson (who won election to reduced term in 2010) on the Board.

Chaska Mayor:  Mark Windschitl (67.8%) def. Richard Swanson (31.1%)

This was a clear show of support for the current city leadership.  Windschitl has grown greatly on the job the last three years, and Swanson’s failure to provide a clear case for change and his tax issues didn’t help his cause.

More analysis to come, including looking at the statewide races and constitutional amendments.

 

Mayor candidate Swanson has $31,000 in unpaid taxes

Richard Swanson, who is running for Mayor of Chaska, has tax liens against his business totaling over $31,000 for tax years 2005-2008 according to the Chaska Herald.

Here’s a helpful hint for folks thinking about running for office in the future — if you have tax liens against you, get it taken care of before you file your candidacy.

Last week, before we were aware of this story, Brick City Blog endorsed Mark Windschitl for Chaska Mayor.

 

Brick City Blog Endorsement: Mark Windschitl for Chaska Mayor

In the first of our endorsements for the 2012 election cycle, I’m pleased to announce support for the re-election of Chaska Mayor Mark Windschitl.

When Windschitl first ran for the office, in the 2010 Special Election, I did not support him.  (On a side note, I am very pleased that we will see the return of Windschitl’s opponent in that election, Jay Rohe, to the City Council.  His voice will be a welcome addition to the Council.)

Windschitl’s 2010 Special Election campaign focused on his personal qualities and long history in Chaska to the exclusion of what agenda he wanted to pursue for the city.

That said, his performance since his election has exceeded my expectations.  He has grown into the role and has overseen the long-awaited completion of the Downtown Master Plan.  The city is in the midst of refreshing its plan for Southwest Chaska — another important effort.  Windschitl’s support of these efforts has been important, and now we need to see him and the rest of the Council follow through to make sure city staff are executing the plan to the best of their abilities.

On the downside, many of the problems that have existed in Chaska for years and years are still there.  Principally:  communication.  The city still does a lousy job of communicating basic information to its citizens.  The city’s website is still a mess.  Last month, the city passed its preliminary levy, setting the ceiling for property tax collections in 2013.  There’s no link to the backup documentation on the front page of the website, nor on the Finance/Budget page.  (If you want to find it, you need to read the staff report from that particular council meeting.)  It shouldn’t be that hard to find basic information about a current, critical issue.  It’s long past time for the Mayor, City Council and staff to stop making excuses and get with the program.

The city also continues to kick the budget can down the road, putting off hard decisions year after year, while patting itself on the back for “not raising taxes”, even though it’s increasing the property tax rate every year.

Windschitl’s opponent, attorney Richard Swanson, is an energetic proponent of downtown Chaska.  While he provides a coherent explanation of the problems in downtown Chaska, he offers little in the way of actionable solutions or insight as to how his leadership would be different than Windschitl’s.  As such, Swanson offers no compelling reason to displace Windschitl.

Windschitl’s experience and record lead us to believe that he is the best choice to move Chaska forward for the next two years.  The city has the ball moving in the right direction, and Windschitl deserves the opportunity to keep things moving.

Below is the video from last week’s League of Women Voters candidate forum for the Chaska Mayor race, so you can evaluate Windschitl and Swanson for yourself.

 

Word games local politicians play to avoid responsibility for raising taxes

We’re entering budget season for counties and cities.  In the next three weeks, these local governmental entities will be setting their preliminary property tax levies for 2013.  The preliminary levy is the highest amount of taxes that the city or county can collect for 2013 — they do have the option of collecting less than that amount when they approve the final levy in early December.

Local units of government take great pride in announcing that they aren’t raising your taxes — they pretty much seem to make that announcement every year, in fact.  How is this possible?  Can it be true?  As you might suspect, the answer here is “not exactly”.  Let’s take a step back and see how this works.

The basic tax calculation for an individual property is pretty simple:  the value of the property multiplied by the tax rate (also called a mill rate). Since the local unit of government has to levy a specific dollar amount for their entire community, though, there’s two ways they can go about the process of determining that final number — they can either go based on the total levy amount and work back into the mill rate or they can start with the mill rate and work up to the number they need.  In reality, local governments combine the two methods to get to a final answer.

Let’s take a look at what happens here.  Here’s a community of 10 houses.  We’ll call this community “Sampleville”.  The 10 homes in Sampleville have a collective value of $3 million, and pay a combined $6,000 in property taxes based on a mill rate of 0.2%. (For wonks out there:  this is going to be a really simplified example.)

What happens in Year 2?  Let’s look at an example of what many cities and counties are experiencing today — declines in property values.  Let’s assume a 10% reduction in property values, and let’s also say that an 11th home is built in the community.  Since times are hard, this home has a less than average value of $150,000.  If the mill rate stays the same, Sampleville generates $300 fewer property tax dollars, even with the addition of the new house.

The Sampleville City Council has some decisions to make at this point.  They can choose to keep the mill rate the same and cut their budget by 5%.  Or they can do what many local government units have done — keep their overall levy amount the same.  After all, Sampleville largely has to provide the same services in Year 2 as they did in Year 1.  They may even have to provide more of some services as there are now more people living in the community.  Under this scenario, Sampleville has to raise the mill rate to make up the difference.  They only have to raise the rate by 5.26%, because of the new house being added to tax base, though.

Even though the mill rate has increased, the Sampleville City Council goes back to its residents and says:  “No tax increase!”  Why? They will say it is because they left the overall tax levy the same — and all residents who were here in Year 1 will pay less in property taxes in Year 2 than they did in Year 1.  (Never mind that they are taking a larger percentage of your property value in Year 2 than they did in Year 1.)

But what if Year 2 is a good economic year?  If property values grow by 10% instead of shrink by 10%, we see a different story.

If no changes are made to the mill rate, tax collections go up by $900.  What does the Sampleville City Council (and most units of local government) do under these situations?  Go back to their residents and say:  “No tax increase!” (and  start planning things to do with the additional $900).  Why?  Because they left your mill rate alone.  The Council will tell you that the reason your taxes went up is a result of your property value increasing, not an active decision by government.

You may have realized at this point that the Sampleville City Council is changing the rules of the game midstream here.  You may also be realizing that many local units of government in Carver County (and across the state) operate the same way.  If you change the standard by which you declare a “tax increase”, it’s pretty easy to make it look like you’re not increasing taxes.

This isn’t meant as some sort of anti-tax screed.  In times like we are in today, decisions to keep local levies flat by raising the mill rate can frequently be justified.  But we have to be fair and call a spade a spade.  If keeping the mill rate flat during good times and collecting the additional revenue from increase property values isn’t a tax increase, then raising the mill rate during bad times to make up for declining property values is a tax increase.  Period.  We should expect our local government officials to not try to muddy the waters on this point.

Radio silence, 2012 budget edition

The City of Chaska City Council will be voting on the preliminary budget levy on Monday, September 12.  Despite multiple work sessions on the topic, the city still hasn’t posted any documentation online about the proposed budget.  As a point of comparison, Chanhassen posted their budget information for their September 12 City Council meeting a week ago.

Chaska facing $400,000 deficit in 2012

The Chaska Herald reported on Monday’s City Council Work Session, at which City Administrator Matt Podhradsky unveiled the updated five-year financial forecast.

The forecast projects a deficit of over $400,ooo for 2012, and higher deficits in the remaining years of the forecast.   On the good news side of the ledger, the projected 2012 deficit is smaller than the 2011 deficit of $650,000 which was closed using a tax rate increase and deferrals of equipment purchases.  Also, TIF District No. 4 closes in 2014-15, which will free up funding for the Street Reconstruction Program.

While the 2012 deficit should be relatively easy to resolve, the City is going to have to get serious about addressing the long-term structural issues in the budget, as I pointed out when the 2011 budget was finalized.  You can’t put off equipment purchases forever, and there is substantial activity ahead — whether it’s the Downtown Master Plan, renovation of Athletic Park, and the maintenance required at the Chaska Community Center (such as the planned replacement of the ice making systems). 

While the City has been quite successful in obtaining grant money to supplement critical projects, we can’t assume such funding is going to remain available — especially given the fact that the federal and state budgets are going to be crimped for the forseeable future.  And while there are signs that development activity may be beginning to come back to life, we can’t expect a building boom comparable to what we saw in the last decade.

Residents of the City would be well served if the Mayor and Council would make moves to eliminate some of the structural issues in the budget starting in 2012 instead of waiting for more severe measures down the road.

April 4 Chaska City Council Meeting cancelled

The April 4 Chaska City Council Meeting has been cancelled.  The next meeting will be on April 18.

Radio silence continues

Updated below (3/22).

Despite now having a full-time employee devoted to city communications, the City of Chaska continues to underwhelm with its ability to get information out of City Hall and to its residents.  Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • Downtown Master Plan:  For weeks before the February 16 Open House, the city was claiming it was going to get information on its website regarding the plan and in particular, the three Catalyst Sites.  We’re now nearly five weeks after the Open House, and nothing is posted as of yet.
  • Facebook:  The city heralded its Facebook account when it opened a year ago.  The page now hasn’t been updated in six months.
  • Agendas and Minutes:  Getting agendas and minutes for the City Council and Commissions on to the webpage continues to somehow be a difficult challenge in 2011.  Council agendas are routinely posted very late in the day on the Friday before the meeting.  This is a very poor way to allow people to know what is coming up in front of the Council.  There’s no reason that a preliminary agenda can’t be posted a week in advance, and then updated to a final agenda on Friday.  As for the Commissions, only the Planning Commission has its documents regularly posted to the site.  None of the other Commissions show any activity on the website in 2011, and the Heritage Preservation and Parks Commissions show little activity in the second half of 2010.  The names of the Commissioners haven’t been updated to reflect the new appointments.  This is basic stuff that just isn’t happening.

Who at City Hall is going to begin to take this seriously?  Compare what Chaska is doing to what Chanhassen is doing on the web and on Facebook.  They have a webpage that is clean with a list of recent updates on the right side of the page and has a repository of agendas and minutes that goes back over a decade.  Their Facebook page is updated 2-3 times per week with community links and important updates.

It’s not difficult or expensive to have a clean, easy-to-navigate, and easy-to-update web site today.  (This blog, for instance is built on software that is free.)  It wouldn’t be difficult for the City of Chaska to have a web presence that reflects that — it just takes a little effort.

The city is approaching a major event in the next few days — serious flooding of the Minnesota River that will precipitate the closure of MN-41 and MN-101 between our area and Shakopee.  How is the city going to keep residents informed?  Last year, they used Facebook reasonably effectively to do so.  This year?  Well, we know there’s nothing on Facebook and there’s no current river status on the Chaska city website, either.

Again, compare how Chaska is communicating here versus what is happening in Carver.  Carver’s Mayor, Greg Osterdyk, is providing frequent updates on his blog.  The city website has updates on the front page and a whole special section as well.

The City of Chaska does so many things well — if only they could get it together on their communications.

[UPDATE, 3/22]:  The city is now reposting the Carver County Flood Updates on the front page of the website.  Also, a link to the Athletic Park Webcam has been posted.

Different kinds of plans

There are plans, and then there are plans.

What was presented at the Downtown Master Plan Open House last week was a plan.  A good plan, as far as it goes, anyway.  There were a number of very good concepts and ideas there, on the 15 or so charts that filled the room.  From plans for a revitalized Firemans Park corner to notions of expanded housing on the riverfront, to the out-of-the-box ideas for plowing under the decidedly not historic strip mall in the heart of downtown, there was a lot to chew on.

So, why, then did the Chaska Herald report so much skepticism from the attendees?

It’s because there wasn’t any plan to take what was on the charts and turn them into reality.  For some attendees, the exercise appeared to be one of pure fantasy.

It’s a little overwhelming – a lot of long-view stuff that probably won’t happen — Tom Hayden, Chaska Farm & Garden

That’s an attitude that the City Council will need to work quickly to overcome.  The way it does so it to clearly establish a real implementation plan — setting priorities, goals, and measures for the short-, medium-, and long-term planning horizons.  It’s critical that the plan be specific, so that the Council and city staff can be held  accountable for progress towards the objectives.  If we don’t see a specific plan and objectives from the Council, that’s a signal we’re in for real trouble.

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