Minneapolis streets proof of budget strain

A pothole portrait
Minneapolis residents see one aspect of the city's budget reflected in the condition of the roadways. Mayor R.T. Rybak's budget revisions cuts the public works budget by $2.2 million this year but the mayor says pothole repair will stay high on the list of priorities.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Drive through any city and the condition of the roads can tell a lot.

It's pothole season and this year, there may be more of them on Minneapolis streets than in past years.

Council member Elizabeth Glidden says she and her council colleagues get regular complaints about potholes on city streets.

"Residents are starting to understand what it means when you delay proper service on our roads to be able to fund immediate needs for police and fire," Glidden said.

The level of complaints can be blamed partially on Mother Nature and partly on Mayor R.T. Rybak, who admits to having sacrificed smooth streets for safe streets - meaning money for street repair has been shifted to keep police officers and firefighters in their jobs.

"Residents are starting to understand what it means when you delay proper service on our roads to be able to fund immediate needs for police and fire."

Rybak says he wants pothole repair high on the list of priorities, even though his budget cuts public works by $2.2 million -- about 5 percent of the money it receives from the city's general fund.

The mayor wants to make up for the lost money with a new streetlight fee, which he says could raise $850,000 this year. The money will also be used to maintain city streets.

However, council member Glidden has concerns the new fee will be unfair to lower-income residents.

"Because it is a more regressive type of fee, even more than property taxes," Glidden said. "You set a certain amount of the fee. It doesn't depend on the value of your property. It won't depend on the income you receive. It will have to depend on other kinds of factors."

Glidden wants to delay the implementation of the streetlight fee. She says the measure needs to go through the committee process and get a public hearing.

Instead, Glidden has proposed a series of other cuts to make up for the money the mayor had expected to raise with the fee this year.

Nearly half the cuts could come from pedestrian improvements around Target Field.

Aside from the street light fee, the council hasn't made any other significant alterations to the budget.

Council member Paul Ostrow says it should pass without too many more changes. But he says the council is already looking ahead to next year.

"We have to assume 2010 is going to be incredibly challenging," he said.

Ostrow bases his assumption on Gov. Pawlenty's proposed cuts for next year and the city's ever-growing pension debt.

Ostrow says the city will need to cut more than $31 million from the general fund, nearly triple the deficit the council had to deal this year. And Ostrow says there will be no federal stimulus dollars available for 2010.

"If that remains unchanged, that could mean as much as $11.7 million dollars in the police department alone," Ostrow said. "So, obviously that's very, very daunting and we'll look at every alternative other than those kinds of cuts. But because police and fire is such a big part of what we do, this level of cuts cannot happen without having a significant impact on those basic services."

Police, fire and public works make up 60 percent of the city's budget. Of the 59 positions that will be cut this year, 11 will come from public works. None will come from police and fire.

The city can get some relief from the pension debt, if state legislators vote to merge the city's troubled pension funds with the state's. But that still leaves a big deficit.

So, over the next few months, city officials will consider new ways to consolidate services and raise new revenue.

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