Straw poll: Would you volunteer to staff the City’s yard waste/compost facility to save money?

City of Northfield compost facilityThe City of Northfield’s compost facility is not due to open for two more weeks, April 13, despite the fact that spring has arrived 2-3 weeks early. Normally, I Ross Tracy would be bitching whining about the City’s lack of flexibility or poor “customer” responsiveness.

But this year’s budget woes compel me to approach it differently. I don’t know how much the City spends each season to have a part-time people staff it but let’s assume it’s approximately $15, 000 (40 hrs/week * 30 weeks * $12/hr).

compost-faq-sshotThe City could save money by cutting back hours and telling people to pay Waste Management or use the Rice County Recycling Center (see the 2010 compost site PDF).

Or it could ask its citizens to volunteer to help keep services at their present level. (Imagine this scenario happening with many other services that the City provides.)

Here’s a straw poll that’ll give city fathers and mothers an indication of citizens’ appetite for cutting vs. volunteering in order to save money:

[poll id=38]


  1. Griff Wigley said:

    It might be kind of fun to socialize/meet people out there.

    It would probably take someone to volunteer to coordinate all the volunteers, though it would seem that a web-based sign-up system would make that relatively easy.

    April 1, 2010
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    Someone at my corner office this morning wondered if a better approach might be to have various civic organizations take turns staffing it, eg, Scouts, Lions, Rotary, Seniors, church groups, etc.

    Another idea: allow businesses to ‘sponsor’ it for X weeks and have their employees staff it.

    Both approaches would be similar to the MNDOT Adopt a Highway program.

    April 1, 2010
  3. Norm Vig said:

    Griff: when I was growing up in a small town in Minnesota, the “city” dump was located about a block from our house (as if we actually had blocks). On warm summer evenings people would drive over there, toss a few bags of garbage over the edge, and socialize. I think it was sort of the social center of town. We kids would go down there as it was getting dark and shoot a few rats. But I’m not sure the compost dump has the same social possibilities. And yes, it is April 1.

    April 1, 2010
  4. kiffi summa said:

    The city is very concerned about liability issues; how would they feel ‘safe’ having volunteers man the refuse site?

    re: funding and this 15K as a possible cut…
    I do not see how it is possible for the city to make enough of these small cuts to ever accomplish another 700K, or whatever it is that is needed.

    Any business manager will tell you that if you need to make big cuts, you need to look at big ‘increments’ , not the ‘death by a thousand (small) cuts’; you just can’t get THERE from HERE with a bunch of tiny cuts… However unpleasant, you must look at the big ticket items.

    April 1, 2010
  5. norman butler said:

    Griff: How about looking at the problem of budget cuts and municipal cash flow in a slightly different way…

    67% of the cities have balance their budgets by layoffs and 62% of cities have canceled capital projects.

    Our City balanced the budget with an 8.5% commercial property tax increase along with higher fees and new charges.

    Our City moved forward with its capital projects, with a new math that said $10.5 million divided by two equals $4.25.

    Just trying to be helpful.

    April 1, 2010
  6. Stephanie Henriksen said:

    Speaking of expense, the City should have thought long and hard before committing $250,000 for consulting fees for master plans for two large industrial parks. Just think–that’s a third of the amount the City is trying to cut. And it will be years before the City will receive a return on that investment.

    April 2, 2010
  7. Griff Wigley said:

    Norman, yeah, the whole budget issue is begging for a comprehensive citizen engagement approach. I’m not sure City Hall wants that, however.

    April 2, 2010
  8. Griff Wigley said:

    City Admin Joel Walinski has a response in his April 2 Friday Memo:

    With the unseasonably warm weather this week, we have had a number of requests and complaints on city services forwarded to my office. These range from discussions on opening the Compost Site early, to statements that the Bridge Square Fountain should be up and operational, to how come the sprinklers aren’t on and the grass isn’t green yet at Sechler Field. Although the weather might provide basis for April Foolishness, we do need to be mindful that freezing temperatures and snow does occur in our area consistently through the month of April.

    Additionally, given the 10% reduction in City staffing over the past two years, scheduling for staff efficiency and economizing expenditures is no longer a luxury but a necessity. The month of March and first several weeks of April are focused on changing operations in Public Works and other City departments from the focus of winter service demands to summer service demands. Regardless of the speed at which the seasons change, there is a set amount of work and tasks that need to be completed before the winter work is finished and staff support can be provided to focus on Spring and Summer city services. Your patience and understanding is appreciated.

    And so did TJ Heinricy, Streets and Parks Supervisor:

    Staff answered quite a few phone calls about the Compost Facility opening date. The Compost facility opens April 13, 2010, however, the Rice County Landfill is open and residents can bring their yard waste there.

    April 4, 2010
  9. Ray Cox said:

    I’m with Stephanie on this one….why is the city essentially taking on the developers costs for these developments? While I understand the desire to have land available for commerical projects, if the land cannot be developed economically by the private sector the public sector should certainly stay out of it. Preliminary design cost are traditionally part of the developers cost….and risk. When I developed a small (12 acre) site around the ice arena about 10 years ago, the city did not step forward to help me with my preliminary design costs; and there was no reason they should have.
    .-= (Ray Cox is a blogger. See a recent post titled Dental Clinic) =-.

    April 4, 2010
  10. Griff Wigley said:

    Ray, I think we’re being told that ‘shovel ready’ is the new requirement if we’re going to attract industry to town. I’m not sure I agree but I hear that phrase a lot.

    April 5, 2010
  11. Ray Cox said:

    Yes….that is tossed out quite a bit lately, and I agree that it is a good thing to have. It essentially means there is land that is properly zoned, has all required utilities stubbed into the property and the ground has been checked or corrected so that it can be built on. Essentially the only thing needed with ‘shovel ready’ land is a permit to build. That alone can be daunting for some businesses as they may need MPCA approval, MnDot approval, EAW or EIS completed, design approval, and city approval. But the land is ready.

    However, if private business doesn’t want to create ‘shovel ready’ land in Northfield, does it mean the city has to do it? If private investors don’t want to risk the issue I’m sure it will not work out for the city financially either. I don’t get it.
    .-= (Ray Cox is a blogger. See a recent post titled Dental Clinic) =-.

    April 5, 2010
  12. Stephanie Henriksen said:

    Northfield is obviously biting off more than it can chew. HK consultants has said 100-200 acres of industrial is all we can reasonably expect to fill in the next several years.

    Rice County learned a hard lesson when it rezoned 1200 acres of ag land to highway commercial along I-35. After all the committee work and thousands of dollars on consultants, no takers. Instigator of the plan, former Commissioner Jim Brown, has left the area.

    Now the county is entertaining a change of zoning to allow a motocross raceway on the I-35 strip. I shouldn’t be surprised.

    April 5, 2010
  13. kiffi summa said:

    Stephanie: re:#7… I think if the city staff and the EDA majority group only spend 250K of the taxpayers money on this ‘dreamscape’ , we’ll be lucky.

    I forsee the ‘powers that be’ spending down the entire EDA budget and reserves; after all there are two councilors on the EDA who are ready and waiting to go along on this one; that increases the probability at all voting levels.

    April 5, 2010
  14. Stephanie Henriksen said:

    I assume you mean Jim Pokorny and Rhonda Pownell on the EDA. They are up for reelection, I believe. Something to think about.

    April 5, 2010
  15. Randy Jennings said:

    In comparing your development of a 12-acre parcel a decade ago to the annexation, master planning and eventual infrastructure investment of the new business park(s), you’re really comparing two different things. Yes, when it comes to the development and use of a specific piece of property, the developer or owner should bear the cost of his or her value-adding activity, as you did. But you wouldn’t have been able to make that investment if, at some prior point, the public hadn’t brought utilities to your site. You were able to be a responsible private investor/developer, only because the public sector had already done the heavy lifting. That’s where we are with the new business park(s). What’s so hard to get?

    In the current economic climate, the fundamental work of making property “shovel-ready,” as you describe it above, has become an investment a community has to make to appeal to potential investors. You can wish for a return to a principled, rational free market of some (mythical) past golden era, but that doesn’t seem likely. So, our choice is really whether we want to make the public investment of time and money to have development sites ready, or we want to pretend that some beneficent business will come along and make that investment because they think it’s better to locate at full cost in Northfield, versus a subsidized cost elsewhere. Personally, I think the former is the winning argument.

    Over the long-term, we should be able to recoup some, probably not all, of whatever we invest in planning, zoning changes, and bringing utilities to the area through fees paid as the land is developed. Or perhaps we’ll recover those costs through increased economic activity that utilizes the land, creates new businesses, increases employment, etc. In any case, this an exercise in planting trees: neither you or I will enjoy the shade, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

    April 6, 2010
  16. Ray Cox said:

    Randy, I appreciate your comments but I don’t agree with them at all. It seems to me that we have the following:
    The city paying huge consulting fees to plan a business park on land they do not own.
    No clear direction about what type of businesses we are after.
    Land owners who have told the city they will sell the land at some point.
    No price per acre for the land that is going to be sold.
    No identified developer for the land that is being planned on.

    You say there is a difference between the 12 acres I developed and the land in question. I do not agree. It is simply a matter of scale. Both parcels are bare land. Both parcels are served fairly closely by a state highway. Both parcels need substantial amount of infrastructure development. Once these things are figured out it is simply a mater of marketing and land preparation. It doesn’t matter if it is 12 acres or 120 acres the same things have to take place to make the land useable for a business.

    My objection centers on a city paying for essentially private development like this without having all the other issues resolved. If this is such a good plan why don’t we purchase the property now? What happens if the markets improve, the plan we pay for makes sense, and the land owners then decide to significantly raise the price on their land now that we (city) has added value to it?

    I want business development in Northfield as much as any one. But I also feel the city needs to be very, very, very careful about expenditures during the economic times we are in.
    .-= (Ray Cox is a blogger. See a recent post titled Dental Clinic) =-.

    April 6, 2010
  17. Randy Jennings said:

    But, Ray, were you not able to develop your 12 acres because the infrastructure was already to the site? At some point, years before you undertook that development, the city did with the Riverview Industrial Park, exactly what it is doing now. Why was it good then (when you were able to benefit, as did the community as a result of your work), and not now?

    I agree that your 12 acres and the new business park(s) differ in scale. I simply don’t understand why you choose to start the free market clock after the public investment was made in the Riverview park, but you won’t acknowledge a similar process (yes, on a different scale) in the case of the new developments. That seems pretty selective in your argument.

    April 6, 2010
  18. kiffi summa said:

    Randy and Ray… ***of course scale is the difference***
    and also the fact that the site Ray is speaking of was in the city, and the newly annexed acres are so far outside , requiring a yet undivulged HUGE $$ investment that will be the burden of all the taxpayers until a PORTION is reclaimed through development fees in the (mythical? ) future.

    Randy: I think you are doing yourself a big disservice to continue to comment on this issue without acknowledging your ongoing contract with the city/EDA as a producer of PR materials.

    I am SURE you do NOT intentionally intend to mislead, but IMO the services you are hired to do for the City/EDA put your position to comment as an ‘ordinary citizen’ in jeopardy when you take a position here.

    April 6, 2010
  19. Randy Jennings said:

    Kiffi, in commenting here, I am not working for the EDA, but you are right that I can and should provide the Griff-claimer that the EDA is a client. On this particular issue, my questions to Ray are as the “ordinary citizen” of whom you speak. I just find it interesting that he uses the example of his 12-acre development in the Riverview Industrial Park as an example of why the larger businesses parks are somehow suspect, when I find his investment/development a textbook example of why and how such business parks work.

    This conversation has veered far afield from the original topic, but since Griff isn’t reeling us in, let me shift it slightly farther.

    To my thinking, worrying about planning based on whether the land is or is not already annexed or may soon be annexed is a red herring. One parcel (the north area) is, and the other parcel (the south area) is not. Regardless of the jurisdiction, the issue of what use we (the greater Northfield community) want to PERMIT, and what sorts of businesses we want to ATTRACT is what’s important. The planning commission has produced a comprehensive plan and continues to work on the Land Development Code, which will address the former. That’s where the action is, in terms of what will actually be permitted on land within the city’s boundaries. The master planning process for the big parcels north and south is about the latter. That process is about envisioning what sorts of uses we want. Planning provides no guarantee of success, but not planning almost certainly assures reactive development and continuing community contention.

    It makes sense to me that the planning commission’s work and the master planning work are complementary processes. If we need a stronger and broader tax base — which I think most people would like to see — then it is in our interest to be proactive in making Northfield an attractive place to locate a business.

    I agree with Ray (more so than it might appear) that private investment is a bellweather indicator of the viability of any business venture. But I am also a realist, and observe that the signals currently being sent by the “free” market is that businesses expect subsidies. They act in their own economic self-interest, as good theory suggests they should, not in Northfield’s interest. So, if creating conditions that are attractive to businesses results in benefits to the community, shouldn’t we want to do that?

    Clearly taking in several hundred acres is a big gulp. But, Kiffi, I disagree with your assessment that there will be millions of dollars spent on spec. The planning process is a discreet activity that will provide guidance as we (again, the greater Northfield community) move ahead. If it takes years before there’s a market for the development sites, then so be it. The land isn’t going anywhere, and we won’t necessarily have spent the sums of money you fear, without some indication of a willing customer/developer. In the meantime, corn and soybeans will still be grown, cows will still graze. But as we have seen in concrete terms (e.g., College City Beverage’s relocation to Dundas), if we don’t have the land resources ready to attract the businesses we want, they’ll have plenty of options to locate elsewhere.

    April 6, 2010
  20. Ray Cox said:

    Randy, I’m not following your thinking I guess. Almost any piece of property on the edge of town does not have infratructure serving it. The pipes and roads have to be brought into the site. There of course is a question about how far away they are, but that is typically solved by private enterprise—-the closer a property is to the city and to the utilities needed, the more the land costs. Example: you can buy land on the other side (south) of County Road #1 for much less per acre than the land costs on the inside (north) side of County Road #1. That is market driven forces at work. You have to sit on the south side land much longer than you have to sit on the north side land to make it a viable piece to develop.

    I had this discussion many years ago when I was on the school board and we were looking for a location for what became Bridgewater school. Supt Kyte and I went to the city to talk about where they would like to see the city grow, by means of where should we consider placing an elementary school. We were told ‘it can go anywhere, but it needs a conditional use permit’. I replied I knew that, but wasn’t there some area that it would help out to bring utilties to a school where the utilities could be used for some other purpose. “No” we were told, “you can put the school wherever you want”. So much for planning. We ended up with what I consider a second rate location because no one wanted to deal with sensible planning in the city. And that is not up to a consultant—-it should be handled by the highly trained city staff that Northfield always has on hand.

    Randy, the city had nothing to do with the development of Riverview Industrial Park other than the permitting process. A private developer planned and executed the work. The private Northfield Industrial Corporation assisted in some ways, but the entire development was private. I believe that is as it should be. If the only way we can attract a business to town, or keep one in town, is to give them a lot or a building on a lot then it is a very sad day.

    Businesses do need some public help from time to time if they face unusual circumstances. I consider the rebuilding of the bank site in downtown Northfield a very unusual circumstance, and one that probably deserves some city assistance for demoltion. I’m sure others that like the 1960’s bank building disagree with me on that point. But the issue should deal with what does it take to ‘even’ a site to compare with a vacant parcel. How do you ‘even’ redevelopement sites if the city is going to absorb development costs on vacant corn fields?
    .-= (Ray Cox is a blogger. See a recent post titled Dental Clinic) =-.

    April 6, 2010
  21. Ray Cox said:

    One other thing Randy….was it a bad thing that College City Beverage located to Dundas? I guessing not one of their people left their home and moved to another home as a result of the move. I’m guessing that the employees who shop in downtown Northfield continue to do so. About the only difference I can see is that the City of Northfield is out some tax dollars—Rice County kept the tax dollars, the schools kept the tax dollars. It remains to be seen if Dundas made a wise choice in providing financial incentives to CCB to locate there. But all in all they essentially remain in what I consider to be our community and I’m glad to have them here. If Dundas has easier access to available industrial land then I guess that is the way it is.
    .-= (Ray Cox is a blogger. See a recent post titled Dental Clinic) =-.

    April 6, 2010
  22. Randy Jennings said:

    Ray, I wasn’t around back in the day, but didn’t some public entity bring utilities to the Riverview site, and the private developer take it from there? Isn’t that what one hopes will happen at our one or two new business parks? If I understand your facts correctly (and it’s certainly possible I’m missing something), I think they demonstrate the opposite point you do: that public sector investment in infrastructure is a necessary catalyst for private sector investment, then and now.

    As to your story about building a new school, from what you describe you and Charlie asked the right questions. The fact that the city staff at the time didn’t respond very thoughtfully is no reason to repeat the mistake. The master planning initiative currently underway is a very forward-looking planning process. I would hope you and every other interested citizen would get involved. There’s a public open house coming up from 6:00-8:30 p.m. on April 29th at Community Resource Bank.

    April 6, 2010
  23. Randy Jennings said:

    No, the CCB relocation wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for the greater Northfield area, but for the city? We shouldn’t be happy about any solid business moving away, even if there’s nothing we could have done about it. If I remember the news reports at the time, CCB wasn’t shopping for financial incentives as much as literally looking for a large enough piece of land, which could not be found in Nfld. If Dundas offered subsidies, it would have been irrational of that company not to take advantage.

    April 6, 2010
  24. Randy Jennings said:

    Ray, one comment on your last sentence: I’ve been to a bunch of EDA meetings where business park development has been discussed. There’s been discussion of the cost of bringing infrastructure TO the business park(s), but I’ve never heard anyone discuss absorbing development costs on the “vacant cornfields” themselves. Where’d you get that?

    April 6, 2010
  25. kiffi summa said:

    Frankly, Randy, I do not see how you can separate yourself from the EDA Public Relations job just by saying your opinions on this PARTICULAR issue , which is very specific to the EDA, are those of a “private citizen”.. And according to Mr. Gunderson, the meetings you reference sitting in on (EDA) are a source of time reimbursement within your contract.
    Please correct me if I am wrong in remembering Mr. Gunderson say that at the last meeting.

    I think the Master Planning $$ are necessary to spend to have any hope of attracting industrial development , and I am VERY glad, as I have said many times, in many places, to be spending them with such a competent firm.

    I just do not believe that the end of spending taxpayers’$$ is anywhere in sight, if the goal is anything approaching a “shovel ready” situation for the NW Territories. It will be millions of dollars for infrastructure that has the potential to sit for 20-50 years, like the infamous Florida land development projects.

    *** sorry about continuing the drift, Griff… but this is obviously an important discussion with some interested and involved parties. Why not create a new thread?

    April 7, 2010
  26. Ray Cox said:

    Randy, the city has a solid plan for installing infrastructure. I cannot speak for the Riverview Industrial Park utilities. I seem to remember there were utilities out serving the Ranch House…now Perkins, at the time. I do know that when I developed the Cannon Commercial Center at Jefferson and Highway #3 there were indeed utilities in the boulevard of TH#3. That was the extent of the city’s utilities. Those utilities were put in to serve areas south of the city. I paid for all the preliminary planning, final designs, road construction, storm pond construction, sewer and water installations, boulevard trees, etc. etc. That is as it should be.

    When a development is planned for an area and there is an agreed upon need for a collector street to service the area of the city, the city’s plans kick in. A collector street (Jefferson Road, Lincoln Parkway, etc.) is not something a developer should pay for entirely 100%. That is understood. The city formula has some percentage that is paid for by the city since it will serve the whole city. In a similar fashion, if the development can be served by an 8″ water main, then the developer pays for that. Oftentimes the city decides to pay for the oversizing of water mains and sewers to handle projected growth. In that case the developer still pays for the 8″ water main, and the city pays for an increase to say a 16″ water main. Again, that is as it should be. This system has worked for many years. Developers pay for what is needed for their development and the city pays for what is used for future needs and general access roads.

    Frankly I’m not at all clear what the city is talking about doing for the new commercial developments. Are they doing just the preliminary planning? Are they going to extend utilties to the sites? Are they going to extend utilities into the site where future roads will be constructed? Are they going to build roads to or in the development? My question remains as to why the city is taking on the design role in a development? And where will it end?
    .-= (Ray Cox is a blogger. See a recent post titled Dental Clinic) =-.

    April 7, 2010

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