Things You Need to Know...

St. Paul BOMA Ward 2 City Council Candidate Interview Excerpts

The BOMA Government Affairs Committee met with Darren Tobolt and Rebecca Noecker, Ward 2 candidates for the Saint Paul City Council. Committee members discussed topics of importance to downtown Saint Paul. The following are excerpts from those meetings.


 Darren Tobolt

Darren Tobolt grew up in South Saint Paul, before joining the US National Guard. He then worked at the Saint Paul Hotel while attending college, and is currently working as assistant to Victoria Reinhardt on the Ramsey County Board, a position he has held since 1997. Darren is also a past chair of the Saint Paul DFL.

Q: Property taxes are a large part of city income, and also the largest expense for commercial property owners. How would you manage city expenditures to balance the budget and keep property taxes in check?

A: I have been working to lobby our state to make sure they are providing the resources they need to be providing through local government aid, county program aid, etc. Because as they cut those, that needs to be made up in part with property taxes, which is the worst way to fund things as it is a regressive tax. We need to address this at the core level by decreasing our reliance on property taxes. As a City Council member the way I would propose doing that is by having transparency in our budget, and by focusing on outcomes. The County has moved towards a private sector budgeting style and I think the City should move in that direction as well. By publicly tracking expenses we can have honest conversations on who we are, and what we should be spending money on.

Q: Economic development is critical to any city, and people look to a city’s downtown to check how the city as a whole is doing. There are currently multiple high profile sites available for development, what is your vision for these sites in downtown? Also, what would you do to entice a developer or major employer to come downtown?

A: I would immediately get involved with organizations that serve to market the region such as “Greater MSP” and make sure that downtown Saint Paul is at the forefront of how the region as a whole is being marketed. The City’s role is providing the canvas that the downtown is painted upon.


Personally I’m willing to do the direct person to person work to ensure these opportunities are capitalized upon.  You can’t just send them a synopsis on a sheet of paper or give them a call, you have to actually get out there to talk to them and show them, and I’m willing to do that. I am a big proponent of making the City pedestrian friendly, and the “Macys site” is the core of downtown and needs to be pedestrian oriented. Having better pedestrian and bike access will help every building in downtown Saint Paul.

Q: The city’s PED department has been pushing the “river balcony,” is that something you support? If so what role do you see the City playing in its development?

 

Q: What are your thoughts on transit and transportation, and specifically what do you think we should do about parking in downtown? Should it be expanded, contracted, or left as is?

A: We’re in my wheelhouse here.  Transit and parking are a huge part of what I’ve done for my past jobs. I’ve been all over the country looking at how other cities do their transit and parking, and I think that the parking answer is everything. The parking issues downtown are real, but also solvable. There is a lot of parking downtown but it seems to be mismatched, with an excess one place, and not enough somewhere else. Those kind of problems need to be dealt with and the City is the right one to deal with them.
They can be dealt with in several different ways.  One is by making the pedestrian access better, making it more attractive for someone to walk two or three blocks. By giving up with the idea that everyone is going to be able to park five feet from their destination, and making it so people don’t necessarily even want to park five feet from their destination by having more opportunities for pedestrians downtown. I think we need to work diligently at driving less downtown, but we will always need some parking downtown. I definitely favor public parking ramps. I think the City should be in the parking business because parking is part of our transit. Also, these public parking ramps help make parking available to every building.


As downtown grows I also want to talk about streetcars. Streetcars are not long distance transit. I think a streetcar fits in with the “West Side Flats,” and I think a streetcar down Robert Street would help grow downtown across the river. It would help provide downtown with all those opportunities across the river, and allow people to go back and forth with ease.  It would also transport people across downtown with ease. That’s exactly what street cars are for, less for transportation and more for economic development. It’s a great idea, it moves people around, and also balances out the issue of an empty parking ramp somewhere and a building with no parking somewhere else.

Q: What do you think can be done to make people feel more comfortable in downtown Saint Paul?

A: I think there is a perception problem. I want to commend the Ambassador Program.  That’s the kind of city I want to be in, one where we help the people who might sometimes just be viewed as a problem. They are not a problem, they are in a problem. By helping people get out of that we address it proactively and everyone wins, so that is the kind of work I think we need to continue on doing. By making things feel safer, you make them safer. Improving and clarifying navigation and wayfinding, being able to easily find out where you are in downtown and how to get to where you want to be also helps with that feeling of safety.

Q: Would you support additional police funding?

A: Yes, if the numbers bare it out. I’d like to do it by creating more of that feeling of safety, but if we need more police I’d want them to be more pedestrian & bike oriented, so people see them actually walking around. I don’t want to create a police state either though.  That’s the other aspect of why I applauded the Ambassadors Program, the idea that the police are quickly working with a nonprofit agency to find opportunities, and not sending the police out to harass people, rather we are sending the right people out to help people. If we can increase safety by having more ambassadors and not necessarily having more police then we should be investing in the Ambassador Program, but we do need to know it’s working before making further commitments.

Q: If a business comes to you looking to get a new skyway connection in the system, tell us about your position?

A: If a developer of a new building wanted to build downtown and get connected to the skyway, I would fight like heck to make that happen. If they feel it will be a benefit to their building, we should try to help that out.

Q: Would you maintain your county position?

A: No I would not. If I do win, this would be my full time job…even though it’s considered part time.


Rebecca Noecker

Rebecca Noecker was born in Boston and moved to Minnesota at the age of six. She received her undergraduate degree in Social Studies and went to teach elementary school in Baton Rouge Louisiana a week before hurricane Katrina hit. She cites this as the hardest experience of her life, and left with more respect for public school teachers than anything else. Rebecca then moved to India for a year and a half, working with an NGO supporting education. She then moved back to Minnesota four years ago, and is currently Director of Outreach and Partnerships at AchieveMpls, and has also served on the Saint Paul Planning Commission for the past four years. However, she plans to quit those jobs if elected, and serve on the City Council full time.

Q: Property taxes are a large part of the city income, and also the largest expense on commercial property owners. How would you manage city expenditures to balance the budget and keep property taxes in check?

A: I would hold City expenditures in check, but I also think there is another side of that, which is the expanded tax base. I think what’s happening right now in Saint Paul is that we do not have the tax base we need to support the services we want to provide. We need more businesses so that the business community we have is not bearing such a disproportionate tax burden. There are multiple ways I would look to do this; one is payment in lieu of taxes. Looking to the government and non-profit property holders as they are providing an employment benefit to the City, and they are receiving a huge benefit by not paying taxes, but is there some way they could come together and as a consortium of, for example, higher education, contribute to something meaningful to them, but also necessary for the City. Another thing is to encourage more businesses to come here, especially small businesses with a tax assistance program.


That being said, we also need to keep City costs down and I’m a huge fan of efficiency, and the changing of behavior if not seeing the desired results. The City Council has the power to audit City departments, and I think we should use that power. Also, applied efficiency through cooperative purchasing with the County would help to decrease inefficiencies. There are reams and reams of data on this, but no one has gone through to make that data easily understandable, and there are products and services out there that would easily allow this to be done.

 

Q: Economic development is critical to any city, and people look to a city’s downtown to check how the city as a whole is doing. There are currently multiple high profile sites available for development, what is your vision for these sites in downtown? Also what would you do to entice a developer or major employer to come downtown?

A: The bottom line for me is always that development should be dense and mixed use. When we have horizontal space available we need to be putting commercial and industrial on that, and when we have vertical space available we can be putting residential in that. We have ten thousand people living in downtown Saint Paul and they all drive to Dakota County to buy a pair of socks.  It’s ridiculous.  I think there are a lot of missed opportunities in Saint Paul because we have a real inferiority complex. We need to stop comparing Saint Paul to other locations, and start speaking proudly of what we have to offer here. We also need to build up infrastructure and we can do that in a very exciting way. I would beef up transit, but also things like broadband infrastructure. You can dig once, lay a fiber optic cable, and become a model city for something like that. But again, it requires imagination, and the leadership to do it, then we can brag about it.

Q: If elected you would be joining a council with other members, some of which have served for a number of years. Coming in with fresh ideas do you anticipate that you will have to lobby them to look through a different lens?

A: I suspect that I will. The good news is building relationships is a strength of mine, and it’s only six people to lobby so if you can get three of your friends to be your friends…

Q: The cities PED department has been pushing the “river balcony,” is that something you support? If so what role do you see the city playing in its development?

A: Yes, I am in favor of a boardwalk. Everything depends to me on process, I think it could be a huge opportunity for the property owners and I’m sure they could see it that way as well, but they have to be in the conversation when it’s actually meaningful for them to be, not just when you are coming in seeking buy-in for something that is already a done deal.

Q: How do you see the city’s role in assisting new development and businesses?

 

Q: What are your thoughts on transit and transportation, and specifically what do you think we should do about parking in downtown?  Should it be expanded, contracted, or left as is?

A: To me there is a huge problem in the imbalance of on- and off-street parking. We are also not pricing the on-street parking efficiently at all. I understand that I pay to park at meters until 5pm, then it’s free for the rest of the day, that’s ridiculous. Why is that cost that is normally $2 an hour suddenly free in the evenings and on Sunday? So I think we need to balance the cost of on- and off-street parking.  We need to price parking efficiently on the street, and we also need to be creative on where parking is actually located within the garages. For example, maybe the first level could have some half hour spots rather than all monthly contract spots and clearly signed as available.
Also, there is no signage in our city.  We need to have signage that actually shows where things are. As far as transit vs. parking, we are in a weird place right now because we are trying to push towards transit, but we are still a car dependent society, and I’m keenly aware of that. I love transit and biking, but I also acknowledge that right now most people are still driving. I think we can all acknowledge it’s better not to drive, and we are going to move people towards a healthier more sustainable lifestyle, but it’s going to take time, so we have to work with business owners to make sure we do it in a way that is not going to be economic death to them.

Q: What do you think can be done to make people feel more comfortable in downtown Saint Paul?

A: There needs to be enough police and funding in a community policing model so officers can walk around, or Segway around, or bike around, and meet people and get to know people, and there needs to be enough of them so that they can respond. We also just need more eyes on the street, which comes from having more retail on the ground floors.  Even simple things like lighting and sidewalk expansion can help with the feeling of safety, when it’s less dark and you do not have to walk single file. This could be done by improving transparency and making people aware of already existing programs like the new market tax credits, and the two percent loan program for small business improvements. Also, I think some kind of downtown improvement district team, being able to clearly direct people, sweep up trash, and just be an additional authority figure would really help.

Return to list

0 Comments