Duluth mayor’s proposal to spend COVID funds on city hall air conditioning runs into trouble

It’s not the most expensive item on Mayor Emily Larson’s wish list for spending $58 million in the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief funds coming to Duluth. But Larson’s proposal to prioritize $12 million of the windfall to upgrade the ventilation system and install air conditioning at city hall rubbed some residents the wrong way at a Tuesday city council meeting covered by the News Tribune.

During a public comment period, Duluth resident Casey Teschner suggested the decision as to how the relief funds are distributed be put to the public.

“Because this money is meant for the people, I propose that any expenditure totaling over 1% of the total funds — or $581,000 — should be put before a public referendum and not allocated without direct public approval,” he said.

“That Mayor Larson would suggest allocating more than 20% of that money —$12 million — to ventilate and air condition City Hall, is a very bad look,” Teschner said. “I won’t speak to the motives. But it appears to me that Mayor Larson values her comfort over the needs of the citizens she serves.”

The potential for controversy surfaced at the council’s working session last week where some city employees argued the pandemic exposed long-standing problems with the building’s HVAC system.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the poor air quality at City Hall had been flagged as in need of improvement, said City Finance Director Jen Carlson, who noted that the building fails to meet standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The outbreak of the airborne coronavirus only heightened the importance of improving air quality in the building, she said, telling councilors: “COVID has exacerbated the need to do this project.”

Others tried to make the case that spending the federal COVID relief funds to improve the climate at city hall would be a good deal for local taxpayers in the long run.

At large Councilor Zack Filipovich referred to the mayor’s blueprint as “a very strong pro-taxpayer proposal,” noting that the plan to replace City Hall’s climate-control and air-handling systems alone will save residents an estimated $3 million to $4 million in financing costs and will lift the burden of a known pending $12 million expense from the shoulders of local property owners.

Evidently the optics of bestowing $12 million on upgrading city hall instead of offsetting the pandemic’s impact on Duluth residents registered with city councilors just in time. Rather than rubber stamp Mayor Larson’s wish list, the council voted to put off a final decision until they have a chance to further evaluate her priorities.

Several councilors, however, expressed a desire to see more of the relief funds directed to provide public safety training and to launch a new non-law enforcement crisis intervention pilot program. Councilor Gary Anderson suggested some of the $20.7 million in funds Mayor Larson had earmarked affordable housing and emergency shelter could be redirected to those initiatives.

At large Councilor Arik Forsman noted that the $58.1 million in relief funds is equivalent to 63% of the city’s general fund budget and suggested such a big decision warranted an extra couple weeks of consideration.