Cut cops? Turn off lights? Raise taxes? Minnesota cities redefine what they do

Brainerd turned off some streetlights to save money. Red Wing is thinking about deep-sixing its 23-year-old garbage incinerator to save a half a million dollars a year and selling the city’s golf course to save another $120,000 a year. Wanamingo is contemplating a near-40 percent increase in the city’s property tax levy next year.

In Cambridge, after elected officials learned they likely would have to raise property taxes 4 percent every year for a decade to keep city services at current levels, they asked staff members to propose savings through layoffs or reducing city workers’ hours.

This is just a sampling of how cities have been forced by the recession and anticipated state budget cuts to try to figure out what they can do without.

It’s safe to say there’s a lot of municipal angst across outstate Minnesota as cities figure out their budgets for 2011. So we’ve made the topic a focus of Ground Level.

Minnesotans will hear quite a bit about state aid to local governments as the race for governor proceeds, but at Ground Level we’re more interested in how the financial squeeze brought on by a moribund economy and shifting political dynamics plays out in communities around the state.

As we’ve been working on this, we can hear people asking themselves — sometimes without realizing it fully — what it is they want their cities to do.

Swimming pools, libraries, street maintenance, city hall hours, parks programs and more are getting scrutiny. But since the most expensive thing cities do is provide for the public safety, police departments are not immune from this questioning. So that’s where we started today with an on air report by MPR News reporter Nancy Lebens.

Her report details how the city of Mora made the tough decision to ax its seven-person department earlier this year and hire the county sheriff, saving $150,000 this year. Nearby, neighbors Chisago City and Lindstrom decided a few years ago to combine their departments. The goal at the time was better service, not cutting the budget, but the result has saved both cities from investing more money to preserve round the clock coverage.

These are ways those three cities dealt with change. Perhaps others can learn from their experiences or have other ways of responding.

To help in the information exchange, we’ve launched a Ground Level topic page on the cities’ financial squeeze this fall. You can find a backgrounder on how cities are budgeting and trying to plan for potential state aid cuts next year as well as links to blogs, data and more.

We plan to add coverage online and on the air in coming weeks and would love to hear your ideas about how cities might spend less or raise more or think about themselves in a new way.

And we’d like to involve readers and community leaders. To that end, MPR News’ Michael Caputo is holding an online conversation at noon Friday at Insight Now on public safety as a core service for cities. Join in.

How cities tackle the financial pressure on them is a key issue for communities around the state, one that is demanding leadership and perhaps new definitions of what residents do collectively.

“The city faces a fiscal crisis not seen in the history of Red Wing,” council administrator Kay Kuhlmann told that city’s council members this month in a memo that laid out a long list of potential budget cuts.

Who’s innovative in responding to this? Who’s making hard decisions the right way? What do you think your city must do and what can it let slide? Let us know.

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