- Associated Press - Monday, December 5, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dec. 2

Sweet suites deal reflects fumbled governance at U.S. Bank Stadium

Minnesota’s sleek new U.S. Bank Stadium now sets the standard for professional football arenas. Regrettably, it’s become clear that state oversight policies for the facility didn’t keep pace with the modernization that transformed the old Metrodome site into a sports showcase. This is a glaring problem that state lawmakers need to address when they return to St. Paul.

Doubts about two stadium executives’ judgment and the discretion state policies give them arise from a Nov. 28 Star Tribune story by Rochelle Olson. The report revealed that the five-member Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), the public board charged with protecting taxpayers’ interest in the $1.1 billion facility, has two luxury suites at its disposal for “marketing” purposes - and the guest list has included family and friends.

Adding to the concern that these suites, a public asset, may have been used for personal benefit is the refusal by the MSFA to reveal many guests’ identities. The MSFA claims that this isn’t public information under Minnesota law. But thanks to Olson’s digging, we do know that family and friends of Ted Mondale and Michele Kelm-Helgen have attended, and that perks include free tickets, food or premium parking. Mondale is the stadium authority’s executive director. Kelm-Helgen, a former Dayton administration staffer, is the authority’s chair.

Other guests have included DFL noteworthies, such as Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and her husband and a Dayton administration official and his wife. Gov. Mark Dayton appoints three of the stadium authority’s five members. His tepid concern about the scandal last week is disappointing, especially given his zeal for investigating improprieties when he served as state auditor.

Kelm-Helgen and Mondale have responded to concerns about special privileges by saying that the former Metrodome sports authority had three club rooms at its disposal to help land new clients and events. They said they had modernized the suites policy by only setting aside two at U.S. Bank Stadium.

But the “we’ve always done it this way” defense doesn’t mean that is how it should be done. Nor does it soothe Minnesotans understandably rankled about what appears to be, fairly or not, party pads for pals and political cronies. It’s remarkable that two experienced political hands like Kelm-Helgen and Mondale failed to grasp how this would be perceived.

Reform is imperative. State Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, deserves support for her call to hold hearings. Fixes should address guest list transparency concerns at U.S. Bank Stadium and Target Field, where the ballpark authority has one suite. Legislators also ought to drill down on the number of suites the stadium authority has. Two suites, each of which can hold about 18 people, seems excessive. Would one work? Are any needed at all? In other cities, such as Cincinnati, public officials have sold suites like this to raise revenue and to avoid the perception of special privilege.

Legislators should also delve into potential overlap between Kelm-Helgen’s and Mondale’s responsibilities.

Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor merits praise for announcing a “priority” review of the suites’ use. The auditor’s findings should guide lawmakers. The stadium’s doors may be open, but its governance policies are still a construction zone.


St. Cloud Times, Dec. 3

Contracts for deed warrant scrutiny

Recent news reports about problem properties sold by a local couple using contract-for-deed financing are rekindling concerns about this longtime tool for helping achieve home ownership.

The Monday Times report “City cites Landwehrs for contract for deed violations” lays out a number of these issues.

Tops is the challenge of holding contract-for-deed properties accountable to rules and regulations that govern everything from exterior appearance to activity in the home. They also raise reasonable concerns about whether contracts for deed have become more of a tool to rent property than to put people on a realistic path to home ownership.

A quote from Don Landwehr in that report says it all: “The No. 1 reason was I saw it as a good way to make money. It was a profit center for my family. But on top of that, it was a way to help people achieve the American dream.”

Speaking bluntly, if the No. 1 reason for contracts for deed is for the title owners to make money, the properties should be converted to rentals. Again, contracts for deed came about to help people (originally farmers) who might not qualify for other financing to become property owners while still making sure the titled owners eventually get full and fair value.

If that is not the spirit reflected in a today’s contracts for deed, then perhaps more laws are needed. At the least, though, existing laws need to be amended to extend accountability to owners of property titles, not just the people who signed the contract for deed.

In the cases involving the four properties, that alone would make a huge difference to the neighbors, who deserve high praise for their dedication to researching what exactly is happening and seeking solutions that ultimately have one reasonable goal: Maintain the neighborhood to the level they expected when they bought their homes.

In fact, that’s exactly why the city of St. Cloud should continue to make sure existing codes and ordinances are met on these and all problem properties, regardless of who owns them. Let the courts sort out who is responsible for fines and fees. Continuing to issue citations will keep the issue top of mind for everyone involved and show the city is serious about doing its part for accountability.

Finally, it must be noted that contracts for deed are not new to controversy. As recently as August 2013, the Legislature adopted new laws aimed at helping educate buyers about their potential problems.

Those were the result of a Star Tribune report early in 2013 that found some property owners in the Twin Cities had used contract-for-deed sales that included huge balloon payments or other terms that made it likely buyers would default, allowing the home to be sold again under a different contract for deed. The investigation also found home inspections that would have revealed health and safety problems were not done.

Resulting legislation aimed to educate buyers more about potential risks, but the law did not mandate appraisals and it dropped a proposal to limit the number of contracts for deed to one per year per seller.

However, if the No. 1 reason a seller wants a contract for deed is profit, that’s worth revisiting. Remember, its roots are in helping the buyer, too.


The Journal of New Ulm, Dec. 5

Surplus not a ‘windfall’

The Minnesota economic forecast on Friday indicates the state could have a surplus of $1.4 billion at the end of the biennium. This is a much better problem than the billion dollar deficits that preceded the big tax increases in 2012 when Dayton and the DFL controlled the Legislature and government. But it is a problem nonetheless for the taxpayers who have overpaid their taxes to create the surplus.

This surplus is not a “windfall,” money from nowhere that just shows up to make everyone happy. This is money that the government collected from working people trying to make it from paycheck to paycheck, from businesses trying to stay in the black, and from shoppers trying to make their dollars stretch as far as they can. The government has a responsibility to levy the taxes it needs to fund its programs. One would hope that it would return that which it doesn’t need.

Of course, this surplus comes along at a time when the state has needs that are not being met. For several years now state leaders have known, have agreed, that we must invest more in transportation, some $600 million a year over the next ten years to keep up with road and bridge maintenance and improvement projects. There has been an impasse on how to fund it. Perhaps some of this surplus can help pay for that.

Some of it could be used to help those Minnesotans who are trying to buy health insurance on the individual market without having to sell a kidney to pay for the premiums.

Of course, a great use for excess funds is in the form of tax reform and adjustments to allow taxpayers to keep more of their money in the first place.

In the coming legislative session, it will be incumbent on legislators and the governor to set its budget wisely. Republicans are in the driver’s seat here, with control of the House and Senate for the first time since 2012. We trust they will resist the temptation to spend more just because it’s there.

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