Brainerd council approves application for Safe Routes to School
Brainerd council members voted 5-1 Monday to approve what has for some become a polarizing sidewalk issue.
At issue is a proposed plan to build sidewalks by Garfield Elementary with a Safe Routes to School grant application for $300,000 to expand sidewalks out a block from the school.
Those for and against the addition of sidewalks in the Garfield area questioned each others counts on petitions and the general consensus of the neighborhood. What both sides did agree on was a desire to be listened to by council members.
Council President Bonnie Cumberland said the council had gathered a lot of information, heard from residents by email and by phone — and thoroughly discussed numerous aspects of the topic from tree loss to government spending. Just because the council did not agree with each argument did not mean members weren’t listening, Cumberland said.
Borkenhagen said the sidewalk can meander and save trees and after watching traffic at Garfield there is a problem that requires a multi-faceted solution for greater safety involving parking and possibly stop sign intersections as well. Government is about protecting the most vulnerable, the elderly and children, Borkenhagen said.
“We need to build the kind of city that can rise above the ‘me’ and build on ‘us,’” Borkenhagen said. He added 50 years without a traffic accident there was more about luck than anything else.
There was an estimated eight block difference between the $300,000 plan and a second one with the city and the school district each adding $75,000 to raise the project to $450,000 and add more sidewalk. The motion passed Monday was to apply for the $300,000 not to add to the funding. The money is from the gas tax collected and may only be used for the safe routes to school.
Before the conversation was done, the discussion included talk about the recent election, federal government spending and childhood obesity.
Jeff Czeczok, Brainerd resident and airport commission member, said he thought there was an effort to minimize the opposition by saying the people speaking against the sidewalks did not live there.
“Everyone should have an equal say,” Czeczok said.
North Brainerd resident Sarah Hayden said if the city can’t pursue a project to add sidewalks within a block of an elementary school, she wondered what kind of projects the city could pursue. Hayden said she thought most people in Brainerd thought adding sidewalks by the school was a no-brainer.
Dion Smolik, Brainerd, said the people of northeast Brainerd have spoken quite clearly on the issue.
“They don’t want it, clearly it’s a matter of property rights,” Smolik said. He strongly recommended council members think about the people who voted for them.
“The people who voted for you, I believe, would be disappointed if the council went ahead and whistled this thing on through. ... Don’t let the people out here have buyers’ remorse. This goes to the three new members of the council.”
Ed Shaw presented a petition to the council gathered after he walked the route with Marcia Ferris going door to door. Both for and against submitted petitions to the city with people on either side questioning the results of each one.
Shaw said it is important the council listen to everyone. Shaw said some seem to be representing anger about the federal policy and want to refight the last election.
“If we reject the money they are not going to take Obama out of office,” Shaw said. “If we turn it down it will be a huge mistake.”
The city estimated it had a 20 percent to 25 percent chance of getting the funding.
Guy Green, northeast Brainerd resident, said the city has been blessed with many projects by bureaucratic process that is not a citizen process. Green said it was not a matter of clinging to the past or ideologically driven but was from a city that needed healing and less dependence on unelected officials. Green said Shaw, a Brainerd attorney who said he was speaking on his own behalf, was also representing Council member Gary Scheeler.
A K Street northeast resident said he an unnamed council member was in favor of the city applying for every grant it could. Other residents said adding sidewalks wasn’t going to make people more healthy and said the city couldn’t guarantee the labor to build it would benefit the economy by being local.
When Czeczok and council member Dave Pritschet started to debate about the health benefits of fighting childhood obesity and student busing distances, Cumberland hit the gavel.
Council member Chip Borkenhagen presided over the safety and public works committee session and made the motion to move forward with the grant application.
Council member Mary Koep opposed the motion, saying the neighborhood didn’t want the sidewalks and didn’t want to lose its big trees, which she understood. Koep said people always want to say an old tree should come out anyway as it may fall down and that argument is used even when trees are sound. They can’t be replaced with saplings. That, Koep said, was a no-brainer.
“A sidewalk is a burden,” Koep said. “As you get older that burden gets heavier.”
Council member Dale Parks the council has to look at this as community project. Pritschet said this was a difficult issue for a lot of reasons and he heard those for and against and was in favor. Pritschet said there are community groups who can help those with concern for sidewalk shoveling and upkeep.
“I believe it will improve the neighborhood,” Pritschet said. It wasn’t an easy decision, but he said he hoped those who ran for office looking for easy decisions weren’t elected.
During the committee session, Borkenhagen said he now knows northeast Brainerd better than he knows his own neighborhood in researching the issue.
“I know every house, every tree,” Borkenhagen said.
Borkenhagen said he parked in front of each house and tried to imagine what the concerns would be from the property owners.
That’s why Borkenhagen said he can understand why this can be a frustrating situation for the people in the neighborhood.
Borkenhagen said he was for sidewalks throughout the city as part of a healthy community.
At the Jan. 22 council meeting, the council voted to send the issue back to the safety and public works committee.
Northeast residents earlier stated the plan was a waste of money that would be a loss of trees, property and privacy.
Earlier in January, the council approved a motion to apply for the grant for Safe Routes To School and contribute $75,000 contingent upon the district matching the contribution with a 6-1 vote. Council member Mary Koep opposed.
After a previous public meeting regarding the Safe Routes to School, Scheeler reported many people who showed up were concerned about the cost, but said people he spoke with were in favor. Residents who filled the council chambers for the Jan. 22 meeting questioned that description, saying they were against the project as a waste of money that would negatively affect their property.
The city has 38 miles of sidewalk. This proposed project would entail about a mile of sidewalk. At its last meeting in January, the city received a petition of 72 names indicating a lack of interest in the project.