Minneapolis' budget strains under weight of bridge collapse costs

Emergency operations center
From this emergency operations center in Minneapolis, officials coordinated the response to the I-35W bridge disaster,
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

One week after the I-35W bridge collapse, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan appeared before the City Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee. Dolan made a presentation to councilmembers which included assessments of his department's performance since the bridge fell. He praised his officers and pointed out that they were working 12-hour shifts 24 hours a day at the bridge site.

"We're keeping tabs on all the costs, and the last time I got an estimate on the costs -- which were just the police costs, not equipment costs -- just for overtime and so forth, we were approaching $2 million just in those few days. It's amazing. Just amazing," he said.

Councilmember Paul Ostrow, chair of the Council's Ways and Means Budget Committee, was not quite as amazed as the chief.

"My question is: you're going to be way beyond our contingency fund already. Two million is beyond what our contingency -- what's left in our contingency. And that's just you, that doesn't include everyone else, so maybe the number is two or three times or even that already and it's going to grow and grow and grow," he said.

The police department is already projected to go $6 million over its 2007 budget. And earlier this year, the City Council appropriated $750,000 from the city's $2 million contingency fund to help the police department boost its presence downtown and in the precincts. The fund is reserved for public safety needs or unforseen snow emergencies.

This latest police expense will likely have to be paid for out the city's $50 million budget reserve. The city keeps a reserve which is 15 percent of its general fund. It's saved for big emergencies - like this one.

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City Budget Director Heather Johnston says she doesn't know how much the bridge collapse response has cost so far, but she says the city will dip into the reserve to pay for it. She expects the federal government to pay the city back for most of the costs.

"We are in conversations with the national transportation agency as well as FEMA, to determine what the eligibility is for these costs and for reimbursement," she said.

Mayor R.T. Rybak says it will be a complicated process to keep track of all the reimburseable expenses. But he says the city has taken steps to make sure they don't miss any.

"Part of our emergency planning, was to have the finance director of the city directly in the emergency operations center from the get go. And so every step of the way the finance director has been there giving advice on how to account for costs and making sure we have a plan," according to Rybak. "And because we have a good plan, not only able to save lives, we're able to save the taxpayer's money by integrating the financial people of the city right there."

Rybak says there's also the possibility that the anticipated special legislative session may include talks about restoring some local government aid to the city.

Over the next few weeks the city's finance department will be compiling and categorizing expenses from the bridge collapse response. City officials say it's too early to tell what affect this may have on the budget process for 2008. Mayor Rybak is expected to make his '08 budget address next week.