In the middle of Manthey Park on this city's north end, a hulking piece of red and yellow playground equipment is rusting and chipping paint. Installed in 1987, the conglomeration of ladders and slides and crawling tunnels has long since passed its expiration date, says Jeff McKay, Owatonna's director of parks and recreation.
And yet, because the cash-strapped city has been unable to replace it, as parts wear out or become dangerous, McKay simply removes them. The shrinking playground centerpiece is short a chin-up bar and its original slide (a makeshift one stands in its place). "This kind of equipment should be replaced every 15 years," he says. "This is on its 25th year. Every year that goes by, we hold our breath." The city hopes to install a new play apparatus, at a cost of $70,000, in 2012. "It's a top priority to get it replaced."
Minnesota's cities are fraying at the edges.
All over the state, projects like Owatonna's playground — important to some residents if not mission critical — have taken a backseat during years of budget slicing in cities and counties. Making ends meet while keeping taxes down in the face of reductions to state aid, a lagging economy and degraded property values has led mayors and city planners to look hard at their budgets and make choices. They're doing that again now, as they hash out final budgets by the end of the year.
Many have eliminated staff positions, trimmed park and recreation programs, reduced library hours and cut back on maintenance. They mow public grass less often, delay building repairs and put off road and sidewalk improvements. In winter, some spread sand and salt only at street intersections and in spring they no longer plant flowers.
Nearly half the cities who responded to a 2010 survey by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, reported cutting back on parks and recreation. Forty percent of cities that budget for police and fire reduced spending on these services. About a third said they performed less snow removal and 27 percent of respondents with libraries said they had cut hours.
But by far the largest service reduction, according to the outstate survey, was in the category of roadwork. Sixty-five percent of responding cities said they'd reduced spending on street maintenance.
Montevideo city manager Steve Jones says his city didn't do any major road overlays in 2011, though it typically spends $1 million annually on such improvements. Alexandria is so far behind on street maintenance that it will need to double the amount it currently spends to catch up, said administrator Jim Taddei. St. Peter received federal stimulus dollars to redo one road, yet deferred repairs remain one of the city's top budgetary concerns. For drivers, this all comes down to bumpier rides and the occasional pothole-related bent rim.
"What I hear from cities is that they've had to delay and maybe permanently (put off) infrastructure type projects," says Gary Carlson, intergovernmental relations director for the League of Minnesota Cities. "At some point you can't delay that stuff any longer. If you don't sealcoat a street, eventually you will have to reconstruct the entire street."
WHAT KIND OF CITY DO YOU LIVE IN?
On a grand scale, cities are struggling to find the sweet spot, the balance between what residents want and what they're willing to pay for. Where that balance lies varies. "Some communities have a very progressive, small 'p,' attitude toward what they want their community to be," said Coalition lobbyist and attorney Bradley Peterson. "They want good parks and amenities and cultural opportunities on top of good roads and libraries and all of that. A lot of communities a long time ago decided they weren't going to be that kind of community. I think it varies a lot."
Identifying which kind of city one lives in can be frustrating and even controversial. "The reality is that individuals aren't willing to look in the mirror and ask, 'Am I willing to lower my expectations if I'm not willing to raise taxes?'" said Craig Clark, city administrator for Worthington. "We won't look at ourselves and say, 'I want something for nothing.'"
Advocates of leaner government point out that some budget crunching has resulted in welcome efficiencies and innovation, such as new collaborations and cross-training employees. But in other cases, cuts will be more visible, Peterson said.
Owatonna proposes raising its levy slightly for 2012 in order to cover a few "critical" repairs and purchases. It plans to fix the playground equipment in Manthey Park, buy a new police car and step up road maintenance. "In the past, our [capital spending] was severely limited and we didn't do hardly anything," says city administrator Kris Busse. "Just, if it was on fire, we had to do it." One example came in January when the roof of the historic city library — long on the repair wish list — leaked, causing water to rain down on the reading room. The city found money to fix the problem, but Busse suspects it was more expensive due to the delay.
"Infrastructure things are pretty subtle until you get to the breaking point and then you have problems."
"People are starting to notice the nicer things we did that we are no longer able to do," she said.
Owatonna resident Brad Johnson is one. Years ago, he says, "When you drove into town and visited any of the parks, they'd make you go, 'Wow, this town has parks.' Now, there is one park, you drive in and the roads are busted up and nothing is maintained as well as it used to be. You go to Lake Kohlmeier, the trail has treated lumber on it and half of that is rotted. Things don't get replaced as soon."
The role of cities is fundamentally changing, said Jay Kiedrowski, senior fellow at the Humphrey School and a former Minnesota Commissioner of Finance. "What voters said in the '80s and '90s was they wanted to see [cities] expand services and have more programs in the parks and more library hours and make sure the streets were getting repaved," he says. "But in the 2000s, as resources have been cut, cities have had to pull back on some of those commitments."
In the future, he says, "We will see governments doing less. It may also be that we get used to less quality of infrastructure. Maybe the flow at the water pipes is less than it has traditionally been. Maybe we occasionally see the sewers backing up. Infrastructure things are pretty subtle until you get to the breaking point and then you have problems."
"Clearly this is a different city government than it was," Kiedrowski adds. "I don't know if it's better or worse, but I think voters will have to assess that."
DETERIORATING ROADS, PEELING WALLPAPER
Hibbing has cut back on lifeguards at the beaches in summer, reduced by half the number of skating rinks in winter, postponed the replacement of playground equipment and compressed its fall pick up of leaves and yard waste. Like many cities, it's reduced road maintenance and cut back on plowing. "We're not getting to the roads as quickly and more roads are deteriorating more quickly," said Mayor Rick Cannata. "At 187 square miles, we are the largest city in the state. We have a lot of outer roads. For a small fee, we used to plow out people's driveways. We had to cut even that this year."
Hibbing proposes raising its property tax levy for 2012, which Cannata says is to offset cuts to state aid. "Hibbing is a beautiful place. It's where I am going to retire and I want it to be a nice town. Hibbing is a great town, but it's a little bit chipped away at."
Austin has delayed sidewalk repairs, increased the days between mow jobs on public land, postponed replacing a vintage 1976 ladder fire truck and put off repairs to City Hall. Despite a proposal to lower its 2012 levy, city leaders are hoping to spend money on some fixes next year.
"We've delayed vehicle purchases — snow plows and the pickup trucks the maintenance department uses — and playground equipment," says the city's director of administrative services Tom Dankert. "In City Hall there is wallpaper peeling down that has some mold on it in the basement. There are two bathrooms that haven't been touched since 1969 as far as remodeling. The carpet on the main floor you can almost see through. For the last two years we've deferred doing these things. We defer and defer. We'd like to have ceiling tiles that don't have stains on them."
"City Hall is supposed to be the pride of the community," Dankert adds.
What early on may have seemed to local governments like a temporary budget squeeze could turn out to be more permanent. Minnesota's population is aging and its workforce, as a result, will shrink. Budget troubles at the state and federal level don't seem to be going away and there appears to be little appetite for raising taxes. "We used our reserves to get us over what we thought was a hump," says Montevideo's Jones.
Some cities, especially outstate, worry about their survival. With fewer amenities to offer, how will they draw and keep residents? "This is really impacting the long-term viability of rural communities and their ability to provide services and compete," says Worthington's Clark.
Peterson agrees that degraded physical plants could bring dramatic consequences. "It's going to make it very difficult for these communities to maintain and attract businesses if they have crumbling infrastructure and roads," he says. "And that is kind of where we are at. All of these problems are going to make it more difficult for cities to emerge from the great recession."