Farmland shares space with housing developments on the outskirts of the fast-growing community of Sartell. Mayor Tim O'Driscoll stands along a busy stretch of road near a new sign that marks his town's population at 12,629.
O'Driscoll says the sign is already outdated, and the city's population is now at 13,225. That number is expected to grow again in a few weeks to about 14,000 when the state demographer announces a new population estimate for the city.
But as far as one state aid formula is concerned, Sartell has fewer than 10,000 people. Mayor O'Driscoll says that number comes from the 2000 census.
"We're still at the 2000 number and we're treated as though we're a small city. And we're not. We're the second largest city in central Minnesota, behind the city of St. Cloud," O'Driscoll says.
Getting the population count right is important for Sartell because it translates into money. State law gives a boost in local government aid to non-metro cities with more than 10,000 people.
“We're treated as though we're a small city. And we're not.”Sartell Mayor Tim O'Driscoll
That's because those towns are considered by the state to be regional centers that need to spend more money on infrastructure -- things like roads, police and fire protection. But they don't always have the tax income to cover those costs.
Seven Minnesota cities -- Sartell, St. Peter, St. Michael, North Branch, Otsego, Alexandria and Monticello -- have all recently eclipsed the 10,000 population mark. But state aid for those regional centers is based on old census figures.
Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, is author of a bill that requires the use of current population estimates when figuring LGA for regional centers. Severson says up-to-date population figures need to be used to dole out state aid.
"There is such huge migration, such big differences in the fast-growing areas, that the current system cripples some cities like Sartell. Their ability to grow is restricted because of that lack of responsiveness to the system," Severson says.
If Severson's bill becomes law, the state would need to come up with $4.3 million in additional local government aid. That money would be split among all the non-metro cities with populations over 10,000. The state spends nearly $500 million on LGA every year.
Officials at the League of Minnesota Cities are in favor of the move, even though it would mean a slight decrease in state aid for three Minnesota cities that recently lost population.
Eric Willette from the League of Minnesota Cities thinks it's important the state use new money to pay for any additional government aid.
"It's easier to make formula changes and reform when there's new money being added, to smooth out the rough edges and to ensure that what's benefiting one city isn't necessarily harming another city," Willette says.
As state lawmakers wrestle over how to spend a $2 billion surplus, Willette says this is the year there should be more money available for Minnesota's growing cities.