U of M study to local government: Time to innovate

NOTE: When MPR News launched Ground Level a year ago to develop new ways to cover community issues in Minnesota, one of the key reporters getting it off the ground was long-time Twin Cities writer and editor Jennifer Vogel. I’m happy to say she’s back on the ground for us, and first on her agenda is to add to our Cities in Crisis coverage, delving deeper into how cities are dealing with new financial realities.

It’s a timely and urgent matter, and she’ll be posting material here regularly. Here’s her first:

With yet another round of cuts to Local Government Aid on the legislative agenda, some cities and counties are looking beyond mere trims in services and reconsidering the very notion of how government works.

As Lena Gould, a policy analyst with the League of Minnesota Cities puts it, “You can only cut so many people before you don’t have enough to provide the services we’re all used to. We need to think differently.”

By the League’s estimate, if cities continue to operate as they do today, given current revenue and spending projections, many cities will be flat broke by 2015. The situation is urgent.

Jay Kiedrowski, a senior fellow with the U of M’s Humphrey School, has just released a report laying out a rough blueprint for the way forward. Called, “Navigating the New Normal,” the report cites some interesting real-life examples of cooperation, volunteerism, and plain old creative thinking in Minnesota.

–Mahnomen County, in partnership with a local car dealership, purchased cars for some recipients of public assistance, thus providing reliable transportation to work. Most of those residents who participated wound up leaving the public welfare rolls.

–Annandale, Maple Lake and Howard Lake built a joint wastewater treatment facility, saving operating costs and allowing for a more sophisticated treatment process.

–North Mankato has a new soccer field, but it wasn’t built by the city. It was built by the local soccer association.

–In Redwood Falls, a private organization has stepped in to maintain Alexander Ramsey Park, the state’s largest municipal park, through private donations, grants, and fundraising.

“Now is the time to innovate,” Kiedrowski writes, noting that a time of crisis can be an opportunity for change.

Certainly there are even more good ideas out there. This spring and summer the League of Minnesota Cities wants to host a series of discussions to spur “broader thinking, better solutions.” Cities can apply to host a forum here. The deadline for applications is February 11.

  • flannery

    It seems a little strange that the Annandale-Maple Lake- Howard Lake Waste Water System would be cited as an example of cities acting together to overcome loss of State funding.

    “Maple Lake was the last of the three cities to connect to the new plant in an effort to obtain a federal grant of $604,000 and a low interest loan of $1,314,000.” Maple Lake Messenger 12/–/10.

    All this project shows is that sometimes you can get Federal dollars (free money from a non-State source) to do projects when you cannot get State aids. It is a poor example for new or innovative ways for local governments to operate in a declining revenue setting.