Glimmers of change emerge from St. James conversations

The message came accompanied with sandwiches, coffee, pie, ice cream and cookies the past couple days, but it was pretty blunt to 80 some people in St. James, Minn.

“The current way of doing things is not sustainable. Changes will need to happen to services, how they are provided and how to pay for them.”

That was Rachel Walker of the League of Minnesota Cities on Tuesday, introducing residents to a conversation about the financial predicament local governments are in as economy and demgraphics change. Read my post from Tuesday for more details on St. James’ situation specifically. With support from the Bush Foundation, the League is holding conversations in about 10 cities around the state in the coming months, hoping to emerge with ideas, both for cities to act on and for state policy makers to consider.

The League expects to produce a report of its findings in November, but, having sat through six hours of meetings the past two days, I think the value of this exercise lies in the fact that residents got engaged. There are 80 people in St. James now armed with a better understanding of the challenge. No, they didn’t come up with a solution for St. James, but maybe they will.

So when you put it to people the way Walker did, how did the 4,600-resident southern Minnesota city respond?

It wasn’t lost on this politically conservative community that, like everyone else, cities have to live within their means. And it was clear people value the police, fire, street, parks, library, transportation and other services they get.

But perhaps some glimmers of new approaches emerged. You could see the wheels turning for people as they thought about the differences between paying fees for using the swimming pool and supporting it entirely with taxes.

–In an adult literacy class, a young man suggested that all of outstate Minnesota communities pool resources and share among themselves but not the Twin Cities.

–Seniors said the rush to provide efficient services online maybe wasn’t such a good idea.

–A young businessman at a service club gathering said he thinks it’s inevitable to accept new standards. If the roads are full of potholes and you have to drive more slowly, well, turn off the cell phone and pay attention. It’s less convenient but it’s reality, he seemed to say.

–Citywide sales taxes drew approval from some, some of whom thought it would encourage residents to shop at home to support local services with their tax dollars.

–To others, this new financial reality is more a call to action to “pay” in ways other than with taxes.

Sue Harris, a community education director for a number of schools, called for greater engagement by more people, showing up for meetings, volunteering, helping decide. “If we do it collaboratively, it costs me less.”

How to encourage that mix of joining in and leading is the really hard question, but sometimes just holding the conversation is the engagement that counts.

After more than an hour of questions about library services, fire protection, transportation and the like at the Prairie View senior apartments, resident Bethel Anderson said, “I think we take all these things for granted. I’ve never thought about how they’re financed.”

She’s one more informed person when city officials have to make tough decisions.

Sometimes that kind of conversation and engagement is enough, at least for a start. The League, with facilitating help from the University of Minnesota extension’s Center for Community Vitality, is holding a lot more of these over the spring and summer. The dates aren’t nailed down but the list of cities is here.

The financial pressure isn’t going away. By the time the League is through, the Legislature and governor will have decided how big a whack to take at the state aid check cities are expecting in July. While city officials are holding their breath for that decision, they might want to tune in to this conversation as well and figure out ways to hold similar local versions of it.

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