West St. Paul Ward 2 candidates talk accessibility, city’s future

Hannah Burlingame

Review staff

 

Just 42 days before the general election, John Justen and Jim Probst had the opportunity to share their views on topics important to the residents of West St. Paul. The two Ward 2 city council candidates took part in a forum held by Women of West St. Paul Sept. 25 at City Hall. 

Residents submitted questions before the forum and the candidates had two minutes each to answer them.

 

Accessibility in the city

There were several questions about the accessibility, safety and walkability of West St. Paul. One question asked if the candidates would support a safety study of the intersection of Dodd Road, Annapolis and Charlton streets, which would require the city to work across municipalities and counties.

Justen, who lives in the 40 Acres neighborhood, said there has been a number of people who spoke to him about the intersection.

“I drive through that intersection. It is scary,” he said, adding he knows of a number of car accidents that have happened at the junction.

Any work to improve the intersection would require St. Paul and West St. Paul to collaborate, and Justen said he would love to find a way to do that.

Probst agreed that the intersection needs to be improved. He said there is the danger of having to look over five streets before crossing. He said it is imperative the two cities work together and “team up” to fix the dangerous crossing.

The candidates were asked what their priorities are to improve accessibility in the city in the next four years.

Probst said he is a big believer in public transportation. His wife takes the bus to work, and he said he thinks it’s imperative to maintain transit options.

Probst lives on Wentworth Avenue, which he said needs a sidewalk.

“We’re losing 10-feet of our land because of it, and I’m perfectly fine with that because we need a sidewalk on that street,” he said, adding bicycles are nice but safety issues need to be addressed first.

Justen said accessibility is an urgent priority, pointing out there are signs on Marie Avenue warning people to watch out for pedestrians.

“We can’t be a city where we have to put up signs to say ‘Look out, there’s probably people walking in the street,’” he said. 

Justen added surveys have shown bikeability, walkability and accessibility are primary concerns every year with residents. The question he said he asks himself is that if a majority of people want it, why doesn’t the city do anything?

He said it’s because people are assessed privately for the sidewalks in front of their homes, arguing sidewalks should be treated as a public good and funded by everyone in the city.

 

Equal services

Another question dealt with ensuring fair and equitable housing, and mental health and family services being more widely available in the city. 

It was related to a change that took place last year in West St. Paul prohibiting people who get government rental assistance or support services from living in the city’s apartments, unless they already lived there.

Justen said he was not a fan of the change. He said affordable housing, a related topic, is important and that includes maintaining facilities for people to live the best life they can. 

Justen said those who need assistance or affordable housing, who are oftentimes placed in the city by Dakota County, need access to things in the city like busses and other facilities.

Probst said as a first ring suburb, West St. Paul has a fair amount of rental property, which is part of the community.

“We have to make sure everybody is supported,” he said, noting that with the city’s elderly population, there are a number of medical calls handled by the fire department. 

Probst said the city could find a way of helping people in situations like falls that doesn’t require calling the police or fire departments, because those costs need to be kept down — he said there are other ways of helping people. 

 

Future development

This November, West St. Paul  residents will vote on a proposed sales tax and the candidates were asked if they supported it. The tax would fund road improvements.

Probst said if the community passed the tax he would support the community and push the tax through the Legislature, which has to approve it. However, he said he would look at other ways to boost tax revenue by bringing in more businesses so the sales tax could become unnecessary.

Justen said he has heard arguments on both sides of the issue that make sense. He added it would be inappropriate, no matter his personal opinions, to not pass the tax if it came back to the council approved by residents.

Probst and Justen were asked what kind of development or land use they would encourage for the empty lots and buildings on the north end of Robert Street. 

“There’s one I would love to see come in here — we need a nice brewpub here in West St. Paul,” said Probst, adding he wants to see more unique restaurants and would love to see light industrial in the area as well.

Justen said he had a long conversation with neighbors in the area and the situation was described as “itchy.” He said it’s a crucial area as it’s the entry point from St. Paul into the city. He added the lot is strange and will take work to develop, though he’d like to see a mix of housing and retail there.

“It’s got to be something that’s a presentation of our city, when people are coming into the city,” said Justen.

 

Tobacco 21

When asked about their position on Tobacco 21, a campaign that aims to raise the purchase age of tobacco products in cities from 18 to 21, Justen said he smoked for years, saying if it had been harder to get tobacco when he was younger he maybe wouldn’t have smoked. 

Justen said there is a revenue question of people leaving the city to buy tobacco products elsewhere. He said the cigarette tax is a contributor to the city’s bottom line but not enough of one to not look at what is clearly a public health issue.

Probst said it’s a deeply personal issue to him as his mother, who was a smoker her entire life, passed away from emphysema and lung cancer. He added he is about as anti-smoking as it gets. 

“I’m a big supporter of small business. I want every single small business to survive. This is one I don’t want to help,” Probst said, pointing out that working to change the tobacco purchase age is one of the first things he would do if elected.

 

River-to-River Greenway

Along with accessibility, the candidates were asked specifically about their support of the River-to-River Greenway trail, which is proposed to go through West St. Paul and would include a tunnel under Robert Street.

Probst said it’s a great opportunity if done in the proper way. 

“It all has to be done in concert. You have to make sure you understand what you’re going to be doing on one side, on the other side and in the middle,” he said, adding the greenway can be a boon for the area.

Justen said he has supported the trail since he first hear about it — the project makes sense.

He added one thing that worries him is the notion he’s heard that every small detail needs to be decided before work can begin. The problem is there is a time limit on the grant funding for the bike tunnel. 

“To say, ‘Well we have to have every tiny piece figured out, I’m not going to rush into development.’ The county is pretty smart about these things. They’re not going to make something rash, so we just need to do this. Development will fall in line, I truly believe that,” he said.  

 

A forum for Ward 3 candidates will be held Oct. 15 from 7 to 8 p.m. at city hall. The full Ward 2 forum can be viewed at www.facebook.com/andi.price.7/videos/10100276777278588.

Election Day is Nov. 6.

-Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

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