Would Minneapolis voters OK new taxes to fix streets?

Potholes along Central Avenue in Minneapolis in 2011. Minneapolis officials are mulling a referendum that would ask voters for a property tax hike dedicated to roads and other transit.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2011

Officials in Minneapolis will be watching the results of an election happening Tuesday in Seattle, where voters will decide whether to increase property taxes to improve streets, bridges, transit and other transportation systems.

There's been discussion in Minneapolis recently about doing something similar in the next couple years. Here's why city leaders are interested and how it might work.

Are the streets in Minneapolis really that bad?

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Right now, they're not terrible. Minneapolis streets are currently rated "fair" on average, but computer models show they're going to fall into serious pothole territory in the next ten years unless the city starts putting more money into them.

It's not a problem unique to Minneapolis. St. Paul went through a big restructuring of its street repair program this year following an outcry over potholes. A lot of America's transportation infrastructure was built in the 1950s and 1960s and now it's getting to the end of its useful life. That's why a growing number of cities, including Minneapolis, are talking about asking voters to kick in more money.

Who's been talking about a referendum?

Staff in the Minneapolis public works department have been gathering information on the idea for the last six months. Mayor Betsy Hodges has signaled she's open to the idea, but she hasn't committed to anything.

"The need is great on all of our streets and roads. And in the absence of a congressional transportation bill, in the absence of the state making final decisions about transit and transportation, we as a city need to move forward with something to solve the problem," Hodges said.

Notes from a meeting in mid-September indicated city officials were discussing trying to raise $250 million in property taxes over a 10-year period, with a goal of basically stopping the deterioration and maybe even improving the status quo a little. For the average homeowner, that would work out to about $120 a year in additional taxes.

Does the city need permission from voters to raise taxes?

No. The Minneapolis City Council has the power to raise property taxes through the regular budget process. But giving voters a direct say in the process could make it more politically palatable.

"I think people are more receptive to having their taxes go up if they can see they're going to have a clear-cut deliverable," said Minneapolis Public Works Director Steve Kotke.

In other words, voters are more willing to accept a tax increase if they know it's going to mean a smoother drive to work every day.

Minneapolis has never tried a street repair referendum before, but other cities around the country have and they are extremely popular with voters. One in Atlanta earlier this year passed with 88 percent of the vote. Spokane, Wash., passed one last year with 77 percent support.

Is there any opposition to the idea of street repair referendum in Minneapolis?

Yes. City Council President Barbara Johnson is strongly opposed. In a council meeting earlier this fall she said taxpayers are already facing too many requests for cash.

"We have our levy. Our levy goes up. Then we have a referendum that is a park referendum. Then we have another referendum that's a school board referendum. And then we have another referendum that's a referendum for our streets, for our basic city services, which I think is a terrible idea," she said. "It all comes on that property tax bill."

Council President Johnson mentioned a park referendum. What's that about?

There's a group of Minneapolis residents that wants to put a question on the ballot next year to raise money for neighborhood parks, which have been falling into disrepair, just like the streets.

Hodges has talked to supporters about delaying that initiative and potentially joining forces — one referendum to raise money for both parks and streets. But the neighborhood parks group led by Hodges' main opponent in the last election, Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew, says it wants to be on the ballot next year, and isn't interested in a joint effort.

So if there is a street referendum, when would it be?

That is a big if, given the opposition. City officials say if they do go forward with a referendum it wouldn't be until 2017.