Ward 4 City Council Candidate Showcase: Shirley Erstad

The following are candidate responses to questions on topics important to Ward 4 citizens. Do you have other questions you would like to ask these candidates seeking the Saint Paul DFL endorsement? Let’s hear them in the comments!  – Executive Committee

Shirley Erstad for Ward 4 City Council

Why are you running for the Saint Paul City Council Ward 4 seat?

I believe in a city where everyone is valued and heard and I believe in representative, inclusive government that is held accountable. I have spent my life moving beyond labels, breaking down barriers, and getting stuff done. As our Ward 4 City Council Member, I will work in collaboration to achieve results on racial equity, raise wages and reduce housing costs, build on the strength of our neighborhoods, include community voices to foster public safety, improve our parks and recreation centers, and make our city truly sustainable. I am an experienced progressive, a non-profit and community leader, and a neighborhood advocate and organizer. I believe that my vision, skills, and experience make me uniquely qualified to serve the people of Ward 4 and the City of Saint Paul.

 

What experiences or positions do you have that prepared you for this role? This could include leadership positions, political or non-political roles, community-based organizations, etc.

I have lived in Saint Paul for 25 years, raised my family here, and built my career making our city a welcoming, livable space for every person and family, regardless of background. Through a number of leadership roles within St. Paul, I have a strong understanding of how systems work and who the stakeholders are, and have built relationships within city government and the community.

I currently serve as Executive Director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of Saint Paul and Ramsey County, a non-profit organization where I’ve fought to build parks, playgrounds, and green spaces across the area and to recognize that they are economic assets as well as environmental ones. As Executive Director, I also understand strategic planning, difficult budget decisions, identifying and building leaders, and working in collaboration for the common good.

I am a founding member of Saint Paul STRONG, a grassroots community group working towards a Safe, Trust, Responsible, Open, Neighborhoods, and Generations approach to government and community work, encouraging inclusivity, transparency, and accountability.

I served on Mayor Melvin Carter’s hiring panel for the Director of Parks and Recreation. I’ve served on the Board of Directors of the Union Park District Council. I’ve worked as an advocate for inclusive and accessible parks and community spaces and participated in conversations of criminal justice on the Dickerman Park, Universally Accessible Playground at Victoria Park, Grand Rounds, and Boys Totem Town Task Forces.

I have testified at many hearings at different levels of government, including the Planning Commission and City Council. I have persistently and doggedly worked in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office, City Council, and community activists. I believe these leadership experiences right here in Saint Paul, working alongside city government, are invaluable to being able to hit the ground running as a member of the City Council.

 

What are some examples of your experiences and accomplishments working in Ward 4 and/or Saint Paul?

When my husband and I moved our family to Ward 4 twenty years ago, we quickly realized we had landed in a terrific neighborhood. Our youngest was two years old and our oldest was seven. There were thirty kids on our block. I helped organize our community block party as well as organized and hosted a progressive dinner for our neighborhood for many years. We put a bench on our boulevard and planted our front yard with native plants for pollinators. Over the past two decades, our front yard has become a gathering place, especially in the fall when the monarch butterflies are migrating. We’ve had a record fifty monarchs at once. We have two Little Free Libraries, one for everyone and one for kids. Last fall, when part of our yard needed to be dug up, I held a “Walking Garden Party” for neighbors to move plants to their yards and out of the way of the heavy equipment. These community-building experiences have helped foster a sense of belonging and connection between me, my family, and our neighbors. That’s one of the things I love best about St. Paul.

From a leadership standpoint, when I learned that our City’s Planning Commission had nine vacancies and no representation from Ward 4 while decisions were being made related to the soccer stadium, I took action. Together with other community activists, we organized and worked for eighteen months alongside then-Mayor Chris Coleman and two City Council Members to fill out Saint Paul’s thirty boards and commissions with ethnically diverse and geographically representative appointments. When he left office, Mayor Coleman highlighted these appointments as one of his proudest accomplishments.

I worked alongside City of Saint Paul leaders, staff, and other stakeholders to revise the city’s Parkland Dedication Ordinance. I helped write the resolution and amendments to the adopted policy and lobbied my position.

I wrote policy briefings and letters and testified before the Administrative Law Judge, as well as the Planning Commission and the City Council regarding the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area that is the National Park in Ward 4 and greater St. Paul. I activated current and past elected officials at all levels of government for this work, including national leaders.

I have been an active participant at both the Ramsey County Parks and Recreation Commission and the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Commission. Both have jurisdiction within the City of St. Paul.

I have been elected to the Union Park District Council Board of Directors three times and have served on the Executive Committee and the Environment and Parks Committee.

 

How do you plan to learn about and respond to concerns of Ward 4 residents? How will you engage with all residents, including communities of color, renters, immigrants, and young people?

A City Council Member’s most important job is to listen and respond to her constituents. I believe the elected official is the employee and the public is the employer. I believe representative government is just what it says. My first job out of college was with a United States Senator. He taught me that constituent services are Job Number One. “You dance with those that brung ya” was his motto and it was ingrained in me.

If elected, I will hold regular coffee hours with my neighbors, just as I have as a candidate. I will be visible at all types of community events and will be a regular presence at District Council meetings. After all, we are not just fellow citizens, we are neighbors and WE ARE the City. I will work hard every day to make sure my neighbors’ voices are heard at City Hall.

I will hold regular office hours, both at City Hall and in Ward 4. I will be a full-time Council Member in a part-time job. My constituents will know who I am, what I look like, where to find me, and how to reach me.

I will communicate with my constituents in person and also via technology. One of the issues I’ve been working on is to keep the city’s website updated. The website is the portal to our city and it’s important that it is user friendly and up-to-date.

I will continue my community-building activities that are fundamental to who I am. For instance, in January, I helped organize a multi-cultural community dinner with citizens on the East Side of St. Paul, working to build bridges across our city and make new immigrants feel welcome in their new home.

I have a proven record of leadership in adding diversity in important roles. When I took my job, the Board of Directors had zero people of color. I recruited and encouraged new voices to join the conversation, changing that zero percent representation of people of color to twenty-five percent representation on the Board.

As a mother of three daughters in their 20s, I regularly have young people around me. My family has helped me and worked hard on this campaign to build a broad coalition of supporters, volunteers, and donors. Our campaign consists of people of color, people with disabilities, people at all income levels, renters and homeowners, business people and philanthropists, new immigrants and folks whose great-great-grandparents immigrated here, you name it. I work to move beyond labels and break down barriers. My team consists of talented, smart, and skilled individuals that would continue to help me as I transition from a candidate engaged with her community to a Council Member in touch with her constituents.

 

What is your opinion on Saint Paul’s history of using tax-increment financing (TIF) districts for development projects and what is your perspective on TIF?

Too often, tax incentives known as Tax Increment Financing (TIF) are used to benefit already big companies, not middle- and working-class families here in St. Paul. We’re going to attract businesses to our city by having great schools, parks, housing, and public transportation, not because we offer race-to-the-bottom tax incentives to relocate here. If St. Paul is going to use TIF, we should make sure it’s being used to encourage small and minority-owned businesses, truly affordable housing, young entrepreneurs, and environmentally-friendly projects.

One of the issues I’m bringing to the forefront in this campaign is that when the St. Paul City Council approves TIF projects, tax money is not only diverted from tax rolls in St. Paul but also from the School District and Ramsey County tax rolls. The St. Paul School Board doesn’t get a vote nor does the Ramsey County Commission. All the power is with the St. Paul City Council. As the City Council wields that power, I believe it is absolutely imperative that the decisions are open, transparent, inclusive, and accountable so that citizens know the full extent of what those decisions mean. For instance, in 2017, the money diverted from the School District for the debt service on TIF districts was $9 million dollars.

Another complication in over-using TIF is that markets want a level playing field. TIF was first used in California, where it has since fallen out of favor, because its overuse has roundly been recognized as an unsustainable way to finance projects. It is supposed to follow the “But For” test, that is, “But for the use of TIF, this project would otherwise not happen.” When TIF is not used judiciously but rather is overused, it creates a market where almost all projects proposed expect TIF incentives because that’s what the project across the street or down the block received.

What to do about TIF? When you’ve dug yourself into a hole…Stop Digging!

  • Learn discipline initially intended with TIF:
  • Follow “but for” requirements.
  • Maintain district lives from 10 to 15 years, and only pay reasonable interest rates.
  • Require assessment agreements.
  • Require TIF grants to be spent on true public improvements for infrastructure.
  • Require developer to follow through on promises i.e. permanent jobs, amenities, parking etc.
  • Answer the question, will this TIF grant hurt existing projects and small businesses?
  • Think about the long-term view and whether the TIF conflicts with long-term goals.
  • Pay down TIF bonds. Don’t spend existing TIF district proceeds, that may be generated, on other things or even worse, create new TIF projects. These proceeds should go back to the General fund. Don’t roll over and start the districts all over again.
  • Provide public review of financial projections and reports on proposed TIF projects.
  • Assure that taxes paid by development covers all the new service expenses by reducing the increment.
  • Establish a Review Board at the state level. This Board will comprise professional analysts that can determine the “but for” test as well as the viability of projects.

 

If you had $250,000 to spend in Ward 4, how would you spend it?

Ironically, this is the same amount of money the City proposed to spend when I testified before the City Council last fall. MUSC Holdings, LLC, the group building the soccer stadium, had already benefited from $22 million in TIF for infrastructure. My testimony was regarding the Parkland Dedication agreement for the project. I asked why, given the millions of public dollars already directed to this project, the City was paying an additional $250,000 to plant trees in the privately-owned public space that MUSC Holdings, LLC would get to program 363 days a year and the city can program “for free” the other two days. To “program” can mean to hold events that generate income, which, in effect, means the City paid to beautify the park for which MUSC Holdings, LLC can generate income for itself 363 days a year, if it so chooses. I suggest this was a case of misplaced priorities on where the City should spend $250,000 when, instead, MUSC Holdings, LLC could have afforded to plant the trees.

Nevertheless, if given the opportunity to spend $250,000 any way I like for Ward 4, I would use it to make progress on some of the most pressing issues facing our neighborhoods like affordable housing and transportation. Micro-grants often have huge impacts and I would use it as seed money to generate creative and innovative ideas and projects. Many people have ideas but just need a small boost to make a difference in our community.

 

Mayor Carter has stated that he wants to sign a law increasing minimum wage to $15 an hour by the end of this year. What is your position on this goal?

I support this goal. We need to work towards a $15 minimum wage, without a tip penalty, so that people are making a fair wage for their hard work. Over 40% of our city’s residents live within 185% of the federal poverty line (that’s about $45,000 for a family of four), and that number continues to grow. We cannot solve this problem by cutting taxes on businesses and hoping that the benefits trickle down to ordinary families. Rather, we need to establish a living wage, ideally indexed to inflation, coupled with strong labor laws and a commitment to helping small businesses, in order to re-establish community wealth. And, we must continually recognize that minimum wage disproportionately affects women and people of color.

 

Housing is increasingly unaffordable for too many Saint Paul families. With a growing population, prices and rents will continue to rise unless changes are made. What ideas do you have or what existing ideas (such as new housing units or broad based upzoning to allow greater density and more multi-family housing) do you support to make housing more available and affordable?

We have an affordable housing crisis in the Twin Cities. The average household in St. Paul is spending 43% of its income on housing and transportation. Our average housing unit rent in the Twin Cities continues to climb, there is nearly a 0% vacancy rate for 3-bedroom family rental property, and we suffer from a lack of affordable starter homes for those who hope to move from renting to owning.

Tackling our affordable housing crisis in St. Paul is no simple task and will require a multifaceted approach. One, we must first seek to do no harm and avoid removing existing affordable housing stock. Two, rehabilitating existing affordable housing stock can produce co-benefits of improved housing opportunities for low- and middle-income families and strengthen the tax base. Three, use the development of the Ford plant site and other available sites to build new affordable housing units. Four, seek creative solutions like creating Community Land Trusts as another mechanism for making affordable homeownership available to people with low incomes, and preserving a stock of affordable housing in a neighborhood by removing land from the speculative real-estate market. Five, we need to address the underlying factors that have made it hard for families to raise their wages and build wealth. We can tackle this by raising the minimum wage, addressing income disparities across communities, and working to reduce college debt.

 

What do you want Ward 4 to know about you that you haven’t already mentioned above?

In addition to being a candidate, a leader, a volunteer, a mentor, a neighborhood activist and organizer, I’m also a mom and have been married to my husband, Rich, for thirty years. We have three bilingual daughters who attended Saint Paul Public Schools. I would be deeply honored and proud to receive the DFL endorsement for our Ward 4 City Council seat.

 

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