Residents skeptical of merger of Mankatos

When Mankato officials released a study that concludes merging the city with North Mankato would save money and reduce taxes, members of both communities might have asked, "why now?"

After all, the idea of combining Mankato and its 36,700 residents with North Mankato, population 13,000, has been around for decades.

Mankato administrators say the time is right, as both cities face one of the toughest economic climates in decades.

But residents have mixed opinions on the merger idea. When Minnesota Public Radio asked local participants of its statewide Public Insight Network what they thought of merger, some said thought it might help improve public safety or lower taxes. But others worried that merger could lead to a loss of identity for smaller North Mankato.

For voters, who would have to approve consolidation, there are some numbers to weigh.

The Public Safety Linchpin

The study found that a single, larger municipality would save $2.2 million a year on government services, with most of the savings -- $1.4 million -- coming from public safety.

One result of merger might be a combined fire fighting service. North Mankato relies on volunteer firefighters. But Mankato has a paid fire department, and its costs are much higher than fire departments of comparable size. A combined force could help reduce the fire budget by reducing staff in administrative and dispatch positions and spreading the cost over the larger population, the study said.

A combined firefighting force would benefit both communities, said Jim Mongeau, a former Mankato firefighter who lives in North Mankato.

Mongeau, who would support a merger, said it should include surrounding communities of LeHillier and Skyline.

"These communities can no longer provide adequate fire protection for themselves as it has become nearly impossible to staff volunteer fire departments," he said.

Then there are folks like North Mankato's Gerald Myking, who said there is a reason why his city relies on volunteers.

"The volunteer-based force is all that North Mankato needs," said Myking, who thinks that the people of North Mankato would not accept a merger. "In a nut shell, it ain't going to happen."

A Tax Promise

According to the study, the savings would lower tax bills by 12 percent for Mankato and 28 percent for North Mankato, according to Mankato leaders, who used 2008 budget figures. A combined municipality also would receive more state aid.

That's music to Tom Koch's ears. The North Mankato business executive is convinced that it would result in lower taxes. Mankato's Erin Bissonnette, a nurse practitioner, gives lower taxes as the only reason to consider it.

Others are skeptical.

"The merger idea is being pushed by the City of Mankato, and I don't necessarily trust their study," said Georgia Holmes of North Mankato. "I am suspicious of it."

North Mankato's Owen Schmidt goes even farther. He said his city's small size means people get more their money.

"Our tax base is highly industrial, and population low," said Schmidt. "The benefit is on my side."

North Mankato Identity

The bottom line for any hope of a merger might be whether North Mankato residents think their community would lose too much autonomy.

"The time is past for out-of-date territorialism," said Julie King, a North Mankato high school teacher. "We have a combined school district which works very well. Our library system is combined. Why not other city services?"

Laura Turk, of North Mankato says she is among those in her city who think merger is worth considering.

"We need to at least sit down at the table and have a discussion," she said.

Others say merger simply doesn't make sense for North Mankato.

"There is nothing they could offer that would make me see this a good deal," North Mankato programmer Kim Spears said.

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