The Hastings City Council Public Safety Committee is poised to consider an ordinance that would raise the legal selling age of tobacco in the city to 21.

On Oct. 2, committee members discussed a "Tobacco 21" policy, which would raise the retail selling age of tobacco to 21, and they will consider potential policy language at their next committee meeting, said Tina Folch, council and committee member. The momentum on the policy comes as awareness toward youth tobacco usage has heightened amid the popularity of vaping devices in schools.

According to Minnesota Department of Health data released on Oct. 2, student vaping has quickly increased recently. 26.4% of 11th grade students reported vaping in 2019, up from 17.1% in 2016. That jump is mirrored for ninth graders — from 9.3% to 16.3% — and eighth grade students — 5.7% to 11.1% — as well.

"The biggest issue is the use in the high school and middle school," said Dolores Pemble, the vice chair of the Public Safety Commission, an advisory committee of Hastings residents. "If we can put that off in some way, I think that’s a good move."

The proposal moved to the public safety committee after the City Council initially discussed it in June and the public safety commission recommended the committee move forward with the policy. At that meeting, council members agreed that the policy should be discussed further, but some members said it might better be addressed at a state level for enforcement reasons.

The state House of Representatives passed a statewide policy, Folch said. However, the state Senate did not act on the policy and that has left it up to local governments to address the issue.

"The Legislature is so embroiled in partisanship … we need to do what we can," Folch said. "Hopefully we can send a loud message to the Legislature, that this is really needed, it can’t be a partisan issue."

Committee members currently aren't planning on proposing policy that would raise the penalty associated with under 21 possession, due to policing concerns with various surrounding communities where it's legal to buy tobacco once someone is 18.

The potential proposal wasn't met well with Muath Ahmed, the owner Hastings Tobacco. He doubted the policy's effectiveness and said it would have a negative effect on his business.

"It's going to be miserable, they're going to be opening up a black market for kids," he said. "You're hurting a business that is making money for the government."

He estimated that 65% of his vape customers are between 18-21.

"When you need something, you'll find a way," Ahmed said.

Numerous communities and counties in Minnesota have passed similar policies — including Minneapolis, Roseville and Wright County.

State tobacco 21 advocates have shared a 2015 study by the Institute of Medicine that showed, when raised, these policies have a strong impact on lowering the "initiation rate" of various pre-21 age groups, or age at which someone starts smoking. The study authors said that raising the purchase age would lead to a reduction in the prevalence of tobacco usage.

Solar agreement approved

Council members approved 25-year solar energy subscription agreements at its Monday night meeting.

The US Solar, a Minneapolis-based solar energy company, agreements will represent about 57% of the city's annual electricity use and are projected to save the city roughly $2.2 million over their duration. The approval marked more than two years since council members first looked into approving a solar contract, after concerns over a 2017 contract's risk tanked that proposal.

"“It isn’t perfect … as it is a commitment. I think we have in front of us the best opportunity," said Council member Trevor Lund. “This is a significantly better opportunity than the first one.”

The solar contracts work through a credit system, where the city will receive billing credit through Xcel Energy and pay a "solar subscription." The difference between the credit and subscription is where the energy savings arise.

US Solar's new proposals include a safety net for one of the council member's main concerns: What happens if the credit falls lower than the subscription rate?

Under the proposals, if the city has to pay more in subscription costs than what the credit is, the subscription rate would lower to match the credit, once the costs equal the amount of savings built up to that point. While US Solar representatives stressed they don't expect the savings to dip below the subscription rate, this ensures the city loses money on the agreement.

"There can be month-to-month fluctuations ... but as soon as you reach neutral we would drop what you would pay to us equal to that current bill credit rate," said Erica Forsman, a manager at US Solar, at the council meeting.

Monday's agreement comes after Council member Folch restarted solar subscription discussions in April. The city's utility committee — Folch, Lund and Council member Joe Balsanek — met with US Solar reps in September to discuss a preliminary contract. There, the committee members stressed to US Solar that the full council would need a safeguard of some form to ensure the contract moves forward.

That came in the form of the safety net, and Folch said she was "blown away" by it.

The council passed the agreements unanimously on Monday.

New city administrator starts

Hasting's City Administrator Dan Wietecha's first City Council meeting started with a mispronunciation.

"I'd like to introduce you all to our new city administrator Dan," said Mayor Mary Fasbender. She paused for a beat and looked over at Wietecha, before misstating his last name.

"Wa-teach-a," he replied.

It was the first of numerous council interactions to come for the city's new top employee. Throughout Monday's meeting, Wietecha said little but listened intently throughout the almost 90-minute meeting.

The former Bath Charter Township, Mich., superintendent officially started on Monday, after a lengthy process that began with former Administrator Melanie Mesko Lee's resignation in November.

Wietecha was one of four finalists, and two finalists ultimately interviewed in July.

Julie Flaten, the city's administrative services director, filled the position on an interim basis.