Forced to Choose: Our reporters’ takeaway

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We launched our Forced to Choose series nearly three months ago with the knowledge that Minnesota communities are being pressed to make harder and harder decisions about their futures. The economy is slow; political winds cause hard feelings over how to proceed; long-term demographic shifts are exacerbating matters.

In many communities there is no way to avoid dealing with questions of taxes, services, reinvention.

These issues aren’t going away and neither will our coverage. But as we wrap up this local-government tax and budget season, we’ve asked for a takeaway from the three reporters who spent many weeks and several thousand miles exploring tight budgets, frayed street infrastructures, upset taxpayers, happy taxpayers, homestead credits, frustrated city managers and agonizing mayors, commissioners and school board members.

What they told us is illuminating. Check them out, either by scrolling down the blog or clicking on the links in the next three paragraphs.

Reporter Curtis Gilbert produced a wrap-up piece for Morning Edition today, focusing on taxes raised and government jobs cut. But here he writes that what he found most interesting was the angst and agonizing Minnesota community leaders go through when they deal with these questions.

Reporter Jennifer Vogel looked at peeling wallpaper in Austin’s city hall, found a housing project that misfired in Claremont and examined the rising interest in sales taxes to ease fiscal pressure. In this post, she notes that sometimes the people with their backs against the wall find the most valuable innovations.

Reporter Tom Robertson honed in on how these forces are perhaps felt most keenly in Minnesota’s many small towns, and he writes here about the question of survival.

You can find all their reporting and more on our Forced to Choose page, a site we will keep updating as taxes get levied, laws get revisited and more Minnesotans make the choices they have to.

In the end, what intrigues me the most is the ephemeral question of how communities make those decisions.

How does a community define itself and then make changes in that definition when it is forced to? Do city councils take resident surveys? Do they bring in the Citizens League to conduct intricate, give-and-take budget sessions that give interested residents a voice?

I recall talking to Kay Kuhlmann, council administrator in Red Wing early on in our project. Faced with the task of paring the 2012 budget, she wasn’t short on ideas that could work. What she was short on was consensus. Each idea had supporters but also an enemy.

It’s too much to ask that this not be a messy process. Conversation often is. It might be too much to ask for consensus even. But these tax-service-job decision gears will keep turning year after year, and information about choices and consequences can be the oil that prevents them from freezing.

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