Minnesotans find themselves “Forced to Choose”

Over the past couple of weeks, MPR News listeners have heard a half dozen news stories on All Things Considered and Morning Edition generated by a new project called “Forced to Choose.”

In Owatonna, voters are choosing between higher taxes and letting a historic set of buildings deteriorate. In Foley, residents hope to save money by cutting police protection. All over Minnesota, businesses are bracing to bear a bigger property tax burden resulting from a state effort to save money.

Today we’ve launched the online version of this project, a look at how Minnesota communities are coping with a new austerity that is putting pressure on city, school and county budgets, on taxes and on how residents come to agreement on what they want their communities to accomplish.

The new “Forced to Choose” site will collect, amplify and add to the stories we’re doing for broadcast. For example, you can listen to reporter Jennifer Vogel talk this afternoon with All Things Considered host Tom Crann about the increasingly shabby look some Minnesota cities are taking on and then check out her thoroughly reported story online with all the details.

Likewise, if you’re confused by how the state changed the property tax law in its special-session efforts to balance the budget (and who isn’t?), check the stop-action video MPR News staffers Curtis Gilbert and Molly Bloom put together. It’s got music, it’s got houses made of Legos and it’s only three and a half minutes long.

Did the Legislature in effect raise property taxes this year? We’re surveying selected cities to find out and will report the results soon.

Look for a lot more in coming months as cities, schools and counties choose what to spend money on, what to give up, how to pay for what they want. This reporting effort is part of our Ground Level project to look at community issues, but we’ve pulled in other resources as well, assigning a total of a half dozen reporters, editors, photojournalists and web developers.

We’re going to report on decisions about fixing streets, providing enough police, closing libraries and finding innovative ways to save money — all crucial elements of the public debate.

But we also want to shine light on how communities come to grips with these questions and how they make decisions. What happens when every idea has an enemy? Does a customer-service approach leave residents expecting more than they’re willing to pay for?

We’ve already tapped into our Public Insight Network to learn from residents about city services, libraries, law enforcement and other topics. We’ll continue to do that and to look for other ways to let people contribute. Feel free to comment here and stay tuned for more coverage.

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