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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Gubernatorial Hopeful, Mayor Stephens Tries to Defend Tax and Spend Record While Facing Accusations of Trying to Curb Public Data Requests

update: Mayor Stephens Bullies Citizen with Baseless Statewide Public Attack Without Evidence. The Response.

Mary Giuliani Stephe
The Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani  Stephens hopes to secure the Republican endorsement for the Governor's race. However, to do this she needs the public to be unaware of her tax and spend record as mayor. If there's a single vote from her against a tax, spending, or debt increase in Woodbury I've yet to find it; likewise so was she unable to directly say she has voted against any specific tax and spending measure when I asked. Under Mary Stephens over ten years in elected office for the city, the rate of city spending has increased over four times faster than the population (83% vs 20%). 
Spending increase votes by Mary Stephens


It was difficult information to find because Woodbury only posts 3 years of financial reports for the public. All the cities I looked into in Washington County post their approved budgets and financial reports as far back as 20 years. Others go over 40 years back, like Cottage Grove goes back to 1976 and Stillwater to 1972

The Woodbury Bulletin broke the news that the city is lobbying the legislature to narrow free and open access to government data.
Stephens and the city council want to charge residents for data and be able to publicly display their name and what data they requested. Coincidentally this correlates with the timing of the mayor's announcement to run for Governor. Clearly this looks to be a political maneuver to prevent opposition research rather than her claim it's to prevent abuses that we are told are occurring. 

I asked Mayor Mary Stephens if she had a response to this allegation and if she could defend her tax and spend record. 

Stephens response was "There is no attempt to “curb research” into any work product of the city. " Going on to say, "we are taking pro-active steps to ensure those requesting government data can get that information as timely as possible. To that end, I have instructed our city to meet with Mr. Don Gemberling to learn from him how we can make this process even easier while saving taxpayer dollars." She didn't explain how charging citizens to get data on their government and publishing their names was making "this process even easier." or how it saves the tax payers money for this non-issue. 

The questions were led with the fact between the year 2015 and 2017 the city only had 68 requests for data, most of them being from the Woodbury Bulletin. None of the requests appeared to be "fishing expeditions" as she described. The full response from the Mayor can be found at the end of this article. Credit for finding the data on the insignificant number of requests for data goes to the non-partisan Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI).

Charging citizens to look at data is no small fee as citizens are at the mercy of the whatever the Government wants to charge. In 2015 I investigated why the County needed to spend $20 million on a public works building so I requested to review specific parts of the plans. They responded it'd cost me $1,313 for staff time and material despite the fact I didn't want to see every single piece of paper on it. But they wanted to scare me off with a big quote. Or in the least, swamp me with a table full of thousands of pages of data, which they did. They claimed providing the specific parts of the plans to review would cost me more money in staff time looking for the data than if they just brought all of it in. The same thing happened when I investigated how the County lost a law suit of $165,000 for a road construction mistake. They again wanted to charge me hundreds of dollars to see all the court files when I only requested to see the 7 pages on the court ruling. This is why this issue is so important. Not to mention the fact we have other volunteers for our page who request data on sex offender cases and publish articles and posts... if Mary Stephens had her way, these watchdogs would have their names publicly listed.

Mayor Stephens was elected in 2007 to the Woodbury City Council, in 2010 she was elected Mayor. Aside from 2012, city taxes have gone up every year and the
Woodbury yearly tax increases
only no vote on the yearly tax increases has been council member Chris Burns.
The mayor has supported the new city lodging tax, the excessive $22 million dollar Bielenberg Sports Center, the nightmare Gateway corridor/Gold line that does not have State support for funding and the Feds have announced their pulling funding for it too. Yet her support for the corridor on the death spiral continues no matter the cost shift to local tax payers in Woodbury. Washington County DOUBLED the transit sales tax in June of 2017 to pay for the added costs.  She even used misinformation to energize support of the corridor after Representative Runbeck (R) proposed oversight to the Met Council who are unelected and yet allocating tens of millions of dollars for these corridors every year. Still today she maintains support of the Gold Line stating that it's $420 million dollar price tag as a bus line was cheaper than the billion dollar light rail option. This is despite the fact Metro Transit has a $9 million dollar express bus upgrade that would outperform the Gold Line for hundreds of millions less:  Gateway Corridor vs Metro Transit: How State's $9 million Route Upgrade Could Replace the Gateway Corridor

So I asked her, do you have a response to those of us who can't find one proposal or vote from you to shrink the taxes and spending in Woodbury? Her response was that she is proud of her record. She dodged the question by going on about how the city is growing and how the city council is cutting some spending in 2018 that we found she supported instituting in the first place. Things like cutting the $88,000 a year assistant to the city administrator who himself makes $160,000 a year and cutting a $93,000 a year community liaison... In the real world, adding dozens of government programs, positions, taxes, and other spending increases for over ten years in office then cutting some for the political spotlight is not an example of a principled fiscal conservative. Besides, the 2018 budget and spending is still higher than 2017.

They even admit the public doesn't want these tax increases even if they get more services! In the 2018 adopted budget (with a 3.8% tax increase) the city reports "the percentage that would support a tax increase to maintain service levels remains below 50 percent." Yet they increased the tax anyway with Councilor Chris Burns as the sole no vote.

Another example of waste supported by Stephens is the golf course. The City has owned the 255 acre, 18 hole, Eagle Valley Golf Course since 1998. Most of it's history it's lost tax payers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. They had the chance to sell it in 2012, but Mayor Stephen and the city council turned the offer down. Instead they spent nearly $900,000 to buy out the golf course debt so it could claim it was making a profit over it's $1.2 million year/ dollar operating cost (p.34). But as any government run business, they operate outside reality. Because if they actually paid for all the expenses of running a golf course they'd still be in debt. Because they don't pay for large expense items like new equipment and machinery. For now, such realities are a future goal according to the 2018 budget p. 201 "Long-term objectives as it relates to the [Golf course] budget will include maintaining reserves for the renewal and replacement of equipment or capital items" Profit or not, should the government be in the Golf Course industry competing against the privately owned golf course in Woodbury? A true republican would say that is not a core function of government.
Other areas of tax and spending with Mayor Stephens supports is:

In 2007, when she was first elected to city council, there were 44 city parks and 112 miles of paved trails (p.212), in a city of 36 square miles that's more than a park every mile! But it wasn't enough, the city is up to 3,400 acres of park space across 55 parks, 140 miles of trails, three fishing piers and a swimming beach (p.36).  When is it enough? They're nice, but cost millions a year to maintain. Just putting in trail map signs in the parks is going to cost $156,000 (p.46).  Parks have 
become 19.6% of the city budget (p.65)! Costing tax payers $6,695,800 a year to maintain (p.68).

There's dozens more examples of waste started or ramped up under her watch with her vote, more than I have time to list in this already long article. So please do not be fooled by Mary Giuliani Stephens on the campaign trail as she claims to be a fiscal conservative claiming that she's against wasteful state spending like in the Met Council as she states on her campaign page:  "For too long the Metropolitan Council has overemphasized light rail transit, spending billions on rail lines that can only move a tiny fraction of people and not goods and services." If she believed her own words she'd shut the Gold Line down while she still can; because it too, even with it's own ridership prediction, will move less than 
5% of traffic off of the I-94 freeway. See more here:  The Gateway Corridor, Big Promises, Little Evidence

-Matt Behning

2018 Spending: $84,128,680 (p.55)
2017 Spending: $81,495, 686  (p.55
2016 Spending: $77,975,717  (p.45)
2015 Spending $63,201,759  (p.187)
2014 Spending $64,699,849 (p.177)
2013 Spending $64,590,398  (p.177)
2012 Spending $48,602,500  (p.177)
2011 Spending $49,363,551  (p.177)
2010 Spending $46,953,044 (p.152)
2009 Spending $46,808,081  (p.152)

2017 tax rate  35.1% (p.233)
2016 tax rate 32.4% (p.200)
2015 tax rate 31.1% (p.200)
2014  tax rate 35.4% (p.200)
2013 tax rate 36.6%  (p.200)
2012 tax rate 33.1%  (p.200)
2011 tax rate 32.2%  (p.200)
2010 tax rate 29.1%  (p.200)
2009 tax rate 27.4%  (p.200)
2008 tax rate 26.8%  (p.200)
2007 tax rate 26.7%  (p.200)

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From: Matt 

Sent: Monday, February 19, 2018
To: Stephens, Mary
Subject: Mayor Stephens. Comment on your tax and spend record and DPA fees?

Doing a post on your support of having citizens pay to obtain government data and have their names published to discourage requesting data.

You've been a Woodbury City councilor or Mayor for over ten years but only a month after announcing run for Governor you've decided that data requests to the city are costly and abusing staff resources. Yet from 2015 to 2017 the city only had 68 request for data, most of them being from the woodbury bulletin for soft ball news on police reports. None of the requests appeared to be "fishing expeditions" as you describe.

1.) Do you have comment about how this appears to be an attempt to curb research into your tax and spend record?

2.) Do you have a response to those of us who can't find one proposal or vote from you to shrink the taxes and spending in Woodbury?

3.) What tax decrease, spending decrease, or decrease in the size of government can you claim as something you championed for the residents of Woodbury?

Lastly, on your website you say:
"For too long the Metropolitan Council has overemphasized light rail transit, spending billions on rail lines that can only move a tiny fraction of people and not goods and services."

So do you no longer support the the nightmare Gateway corridor/Gold line that has not had State support for funding since 2011 and the Feds have announced their pulling funding for it too. Yet do you still support this corridor on the death spiral?  The cost is shifting more and more to local tax payers. Washington County DOUBLED the transit sales tax in June of 2017 to pay for the added costs.  

4.) Do you still support the Gateway Corridor?

Thanks for responses. They will be unedited full quotes if you decide to respond.

-Matt Behning
with 
Washington County Watchdog


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note: inaccuracy in her response is the Legislature funded the corridor in 2014... they didn't, it was back door funded through the Met Council who received a lump sum to fund corridors like the Gateway Corridor. 

From: Stephens, Mary 
Date: Wed, Feb 21, 2018 
Subject: Re: Mayor Stephens. Comment on your tax and spend record and DPA fees?
To: Matt 



Dear Matt,



Despite the obvious bias, tone and one-sided nature your questions clearly indicate, I am pleased to respond to your inquiries.

  

There is no attempt to “curb research” into any work product of the city. The Minnesota Data Practices Act is very clear that information of this nature is public. Please see Minnesota Statutes 13.01 – 13.90. https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=13.  Every action taken by the City of Woodbury is in compliance with this law, and we are taking pro-active steps to ensure those requesting government data can get that information as timely as possible. To that end, I have instructed our city to meet with Mr. Don Gemberling to learn from him how we can make this process even easier while saving taxpayer dollars. Mr.Gemberling is the former Department of Administration official who oversaw state compliance with the Data Practices Act. He is a recognized expert in the field of transparency and governmental accountability.

I am proud of my record governing the city of Woodbury in a fiscally responsible manner. As one of the fastest growing cities in Minnesota, our goal has always been to provide needed services (roads, parks, public safety) while keeping government growth to a rate below the combined  population growth and inflation rate. Staff is provided with target based direction so budget and fund requests are restricted and confined up front in the budget process. There are many cuts from our budget. Here are several examples from 2018:



Community Liaison position - $93,000

Local Government Management Fellowship Program - $54,000

Tuition Reimbursement Program - $15,000

Police and Fire overtime - $24,700

Diesel Fuel Purchases - $33,000



All told, we eliminated over $549,000 in additional spending in 2018. I recently received my proposed tax statement from Washington County and the city portion of my tax is going down by 5%



In addition, we continue to keep our staffing level below our historic averages since I was elected in 2010 and our police staffing continues to be below state averages despite our delivering paramedic services as well. Staffing is the largest share of the city budget, and keeping firm control on the growth of staff is one way to keep our tax rates under control. We have worked with our development community to streamline the permitting process and have reduced our storm water fee charges.



Until it was dissolved, CTIB, (Counties Transit Improvement Board, created during the Pawlenty administration),  was collecting sales tax from Washington County residents for transit, with many hundreds of millions dedicated to light rail transit. Using these dollars for roads and bridges was not an option. I did not support light rail for Gateway but supported the bus rapid transit in this corridor because the cost was significantly less, it was flexible and adaptable to advancing technologies, added roads and bridges, and emergency vehicles could use the lane. Given the options, this was the fiscally responsible choice at that time.  



When CTIB was dissolved (which was the right decision as I never supported CTIB’s formation) the county took over collecting the sales tax as required by the agreement. Also, the state legislature did appropriate dollars to Gateway in 2014. Secondly, Washington County – not the city of Woodbury -- raised the wheelage tax.  



Please feel free to get back to me if you have additional questions.



Mary


Mary Giuliani Stephens
Mayor
City of Woodbury
twitter @mayorstephens