A bitterly divided St. Paul City Council voted Wednesday to preserve a dilapidated and disused billboard perched above the Eastern District police station.

The billboard, which dates to the 1940s when the building was owned by Hamm’s Brewing, has been blank since 2013.

Image Courtesy of “Tear Down the Board.”

But Council Member Dan Bostrom, whose ward includes the building, sees it as an irreplaceable asset to the neighborhood.

“This is a way to positively tell our story,” said Bostrom, who’d like to see the board used to celebrate the legacy of East Side native and legendary Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks.

Rendering courtesy of Council Member Dan Bostrom.

Like many city councils, St. Paul’s has a custom of alderman’s privilege, where the body gives members deference on issues specific to their wards. But the Eastern District building sits at the border of two other council wards, and the members who represent those areas would rather see it torn down.

“If there was ever an example of blight, this is it,” said Council President Kathy Lantry, who represents the area south of the station.

Lantry pointed out that the city passed a policy in 2002 opposing all billboards. She, along with Council Members Amy Brendmoen and Russ Stark, also objected to the timing of Bostrom’s resolution, which was not included on the council’s agenda.

They argued the public, including members of a Facebook group opposed to the billboard, deserved an opportunity to be heard on the issue. But Bostrom said a public hearing would merely delay things.

“It wouldn’t change anybody’s opinion on this council, I don’t care what we did,” he said.

The final vote was 4-3.The city owns the billboard. Bostrom says it’s up to the mayor’s office to decide what message to place there.

Comcast acquired Time Warner in February 2014. (Matt Rourke / AP)

Thirty Minneapolis city buildings will get free basic cable for the next seven years as part of a package of concessions the city wrung out of Comcast in exchange for blessing its proposed merger with fellow cable giant Time Warner.

The free service and equipment is valued at about $50,000.

Comcast has also agreed to pay Minneapolis $40,000 in overdue franchise fees after an audit found it underpaid the city for its use of the public right of way over the last three years.

Minneapolis cable customers will see a small increase on their bills as a result of the agreement, which goes before the city council next week. It raises the fees the company collects from subscribers by 36 cents a month to support public access programming on channels 14, 79 and the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network, which will share an extra $250,000 a year as a result.

 

Comcast needs the city’s permission to transfer its franchise agreement to a spin off called GreatLand Connections. The move is part of an effort to alleviate anti-trust concerns and increase the chances of federal approval for the merger.

Comcast has offered to transfer 2.5 million customers in the Midwest and Southeast to GreatLand if the merger goes through. Greatland would be operated independently, but Comcast and Time Warner would own 67 percent of the company.

Minneapolis isn’t the only city to drive a hard bargain over the proposed merger. The Lexington, Ky., city council voted to oppose the merger last fall because leaders said Time Warner refused to address complaints from customers there. Both companies are infamous for their poor customer service.

The concessions Minneapolis won are relatively small compared to the $4.5 million it will get from Comcast this year in fees. But if you’ve ever tried to get a refund from the company, you know it probably wasn’t easy.

Economics may help explain why city contractors didn’t tow a single car from southwest Minneapolis during the year’s first snow emergency.

The city pays Rapid Recovery Inc. just $59 per vehicle to tow from that area. The towing companies that handle the other three corners of the city get paid more than twice as much for each car they bring in to the impound lot.

Rapid’s price is so much lower, because it is part of a larger $630,000 contract with the city for year-round towing.

Minneapolis encourages towing contractors to focus their efforts on areas closer to the centrally-located impound lot on Colfax Avenue North (in impound towing zone 3 on the map above).

“The tow contractors go where we tell them to go,” Deputy Public Works Director Heidi Hamilton said. “It’s not the tow truck drivers deciding to go where they’re going to make more money.”

But looking at the map of cars towed during the city’s first snow emergency, you have to wonder.

Day towed:
Day 1, SaturdayDay 2, SundayDay 3, Monday

Minneapolis Impound Lot indicated by the green arrow
Source: City of Minneapolis

While all the companies tend to cluster tows toward the edge of their territory closest to the impound lot, the trend is most pronounced in the southwest zone.

Minneapolis towing contracts are complicated. There are two major companies — Rapid and Wrecker Services, Inc. — that tow cars for the city year-round. Wrecker handles the north half of the city; Rapid has the south.

During snow emergencies, the city needs a lot more tow trucks on the road, so it carves up the map into six zones. Minneapolis assigns Wrecker the zone closest to the impound lot, and Rapid gets the southwest quadrant. Those companies are required to charge the same fee to the city they get the rest of the year.

Minneapolis bids the four other snow emergency zones out separately. Those companies get paid as much as $155 dollars per car — more than the impound lot charges owners to retrieve them.

Minneapolis obviously gets a much better deal from its major tow contractors, but is the price so good that it’s not worth Rapid’s time to haul in cars from the far corner of its territory?

The company has not returned several calls seeking comment.

Same issue comes up in St. Paul

St. Paul leaders have questioned whether its snow emergency tow contractors favor areas closest to its two impound lots, and an outside consultant is trying to help determine whether that’s the case.

The consultant may have his work cut out for him, though. Unlike Minneapolis, St. Paul doesn’t have a digital database showing the addresses where cars are towed from. Those addresses are recorded only on paper tickets, Public Works spokesman Kari Spreeman said.