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Forced to Choose: Frequently Asked Questions

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What is putting so much financial pressure on local governments in Minnesota?

A structural imbalance between projected state revenue and historic spending patterns has caused the state to cut back on some aid it has supplied local governments. At the same time, a struggling economy and political pressures have made it difficult for local governments to increase the money they receive from local taxpayers. As a result, local officials face imbalances analogous to the state's and have sought both acceptable means of raising revenue and satisfactory ways to reduce their spending.

What choices are local governments making in response?

Many have reduced services. Library hours have been shortened, park and recreation programs cut back, street maintenance delayed. Government office hours have been limited in some places; elsewhere building repairs have not been made. Delays in capital spending plans for streets and other projects have often been the first place officials save money.

Revenue increases have not been entirely off limits. Some local governments have increased fees, such as those for licenses or recreation programs. And in fall 2011 most local governments raised by at least a little the amount of money they receive from property owners. In addition, a growing number of cities have turned to the Legislature for permission to levy a local sales tax on top of the state sales tax.

How does the changing financial picture affect smaller, outstate cities?

Often, smaller rural cities have lower property values and a limited commercial base. This can make it difficult for them to raise money to pay for services and other government functions. If state aid continues to be reduced, as it has been in recent years, some cities worry they'll become less viable. They may shrink or, in extreme cases, even disappear.

Will communities be able to maintain the infrastructure they have built?

This has become an increasing concern in many places as street repairs are slowed and such things as water and sewer systems age. Some have suggested that too much has been built in decades past and that maintaining that infrastructure will become increasingly difficult in the future.

What are the implications for law enforcement?

Public safety is the largest expenditure for cities in Minnesota, and it is the part of budgets that officials have been most reluctant to cut. But even in this area, some have closed or merged departments, contracted with sheriff's offices or consciously decided to reduce the amount of policing they are willing to pay for. One potential problem as more cities begin to rely more heavily on sheriffs' protection is the tightened straits of some county budgets as well.

Might we see fewer local governments in the future?

Some people think that would be smart, possibly by encouraging more school district mergers or city mergers. One idea mentioned frequently would, in interests of efficiency, reduce the number of counties from the current 87.

Are communities changing the way in which they make these decisions?

Many places and organizations are trying to find ways to get residents more engaged in these choices. Public hearings, like truth-in-taxation meetings, have long been around, and, of course, elections are the ultimate opinion polls. But more local governments are taking surveys of residents and trying more hands-on sessions to get people involved in decision-making. The League of Minnesota Cities, for example, helped hold many meetings this year in a dozen cities around the state. Edina recently held small-group sessions to let residents learn about budgets and offer informed opinions.

Local government associations and non-profits also have held a series of meetings recently, inviting local officials to brainstorm ways the delivery of local services might be redesigned.