By Dan Linehan
The Free Press
The relevant budgetary fact to Mankato City Council president Mike Laven: The portion of the city budget supported by property taxes — mostly police, parks and public safety — has only risen 5.5 percent since 2007.
Challenger Chris Frederick emphasizes other figures, such as $1 million — the approximate amount of cost shifts out of property-tax supported funds this year. Another one: 56 percent, the increase in the property tax debt levy from 2008 to 2013.
This rematch — Laven defeated Frederick 51 percent to 48 percent in 2008 — is in part about how the city has responded to the financial crunches of the recent four years or so.
Laven largely defends the service cuts the council made, though he said the reduction in police liaisons to the schools, with one covering the whole district, was regrettable.
Laven also praised the city’s funding of the City Center Partnership, a downtown business group that receives $25,000 a year from the city, as helping to revitalize the downtown.
He’s proud of the city’s spending on technology, including snowplows that can monitor sand levels and the temperature of a road.
Laven also said the city should continue to seek state money to expand the civic center and look at other options if state money isn’t forthcoming. Instead of a smaller project, Laven said the city should extend the sales tax. The city has said the current tax, which expires in 2022, has only enough capacity for about $16 million in upgrades.
Frederick, who also narrowly lost a mayoral primary in 2010, said the city doesn’t have a strong enough focus on infrastructure.
“I think we just need to take what we have and think where we want to be,” he said.
Laven is a fan of roads, too — he has been vice president of the Highway 14 Partnership for about five years.
Frederick said it appears to taxpayers that the city believes it has a “blank check.”
“Every year, we talk about the levy increase and fee increase,” he said.
Frederick also has criticism for other city decisions:
On the trip to Moldova, which Laven attended: “While it’s great to have international relations, this trip was extremely disappointing.” He called the trip, which cost the city about $3,000, a “junket.”
On the August vote to oppose the gay marriage amendment, which Laven supported: “Whether the City Council was the most appropriate place to have those discussions is what people have a hard time with.”
On the civic center expansion: “If we’re going to expand or increase the sales tax, it should go to a public vote.” That last position is not out of step with the council, which hasn’t voted on expanding the tax.
Frederick said the ordinance limiting rentals to 25 percent per block should be relaxed, given a housing crisis that has lowered housing prices. The ordinance lowers property values because homes that cannot be rented are worth less.
Laven said his three terms has “proven to the community that I can do the job.”
“I’ve cherished it, also felt a pretty heavy sense of obligation,” he said.
His occasionally combative style of questioning has rubbed some people the wrong way, including his fellow council members. Councilman Charlie Hurd has one of Frederick’s lawn signs in his front yard. During the gay marriage public hearing, for example, Laven accused others on the council of hypocrisy for voting on another symbolic issue — the 2010 motion asking former Mayor John Brady to resign.
Laven said he doesn’t mean to argue but acknowledged he is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of preparation by fellow council members.
“Either I’m misunderstanding or they’re not prepared,” he said. Laven, though, said he’s continually excited at the prospect of preparing for meetings.
“I’m still as enthusiastic as the day I first ran,” he said.
Frederick supports some city decisions of the past four years, including the community policing strategy instituted by Public Safety Director Todd Miller, hired in 2010.
Though the race for president is among the most time-consuming council races campaign for because it stretches across the whole city, neither candidate is apparently spending much money on the race. As of Wednesday, neither candidate had filed campaign finance reports, which are required when a candidate either raises or spends $750.