Pawlenty vs. MPLS: Nice try, governor

City's budget guru dispels the myths behind T-Paw's bashing

Governor Tim Pawlenty was in full campaign mode this week, popping up on talk-radio shows of all kinds. Aside from hitting his talking points for re-election--calling for immigration reform, walking a fine line on any new stadiums, pumping up the state's employment numbers--Governor HockeyPuck gently poked at evil Minneapolis, always good for shoring up the state's conservative base.

Appearing on MPR on Tuesday, Pawlenty got specific on how Minneapolis should save money and put more cops on the street. Trouble is, the Governor's spouting had almost no relation to reality, let alone good governance.

Every politician under the sun has to play the public safety card these days, so it was no surprise that Pawlenty used a couple of recent murders--Uptown and downtown--to opine that what Minneapolis really needs is more cops and now.

Pawlenty disingenously insisted that cuts to Local Government Aid at his direction the last few years isn't what has caused a budget crunch in Minneapolis--forcing city leaders to shrink the MPD. Instead it was simply poor fiscal management. In short, he sang the GOP refrain heard 'round the state these days: Liberal leaders in the state's largest city are soft on crime and bad with checkbooks.

So Pawlenty offered a solution: The city should do away with its Civil Rights Department and Civil Service Commission, eliminate or consolidate its park police, and figure out a way to merge its library system with Hennepin County's.

Pat Born, the city's CFO who has helped steer the city away from financial catastrophe the last few years, reacts with bemusement: "If the governor is saying he sees ways in which that will save money, I'll gladly sit down with him."

For starters, according to Born, the city figures it will spend $75,000 a year on each new cop hired, allowing for salary and benefits, not counting equipment. The city's 2006 budget is $1.2 billion, with a general fund of $318 million. Of that, $107.5 million, or 35 percent, goes to the MPD.

"Police are already our highest priority," notes Born, who is more an apolitical number-cruncher than a political partisan.

On the issue of the Civil Service Commission, a body that oversees fair hiring and promotion practices, Born says there's no cop money to be found there. "I suppose a case could be made that it's arguably redundant," Born notes. "But the budget is negligible. There's not enough there to hire even one officer."

The Civil Rights Department has a 2006 budget of $2.9 million, which theoretically could be used to hire about 35 new cops. "We could certainly consider getting rid of the department," Born says, noting that the track record there has been less than stellar. "But we're not the only city that has one. Most cities our size and even smaller have such an office. The reason Minneapolis, St. Paul and a host of suburbs have such departments is because the state has not served the needs of those folks who feel they've had a civil rights issue."

So it may be a choice of what is politically palatable; perhaps the Governor doesn't care much for civil rights on a local level. "If we woke up one day and decided that department should be gone," Born concludes, "it would be a significant reduction in services."

The park police question vexes Born. "I don't know how eliminating or merging them with the Minneapolis police would save money," Born says. The park police department is funded by the Minneapolis Park and Rec board, and has 58 full-time employees, most of whom are sworn police officers. "I'm not sure the city would be safer by losing them."

The library question is "a little murkier," Born says. The Minneapolis library system has a 2006 operating budget of $22 million, and another $10 million in debt service because of the new central library downtown and upgrades to neighborhood libraries. "And that $10 million isn't going away," Born notes.

The taxpayers of Minneapolis don't pay for libraries in Hennepin County outside of the city, and suburban residents don't pay for the city system. There has been talk for some time about merging the two systems, but nobody is really sure what the benefit would be.

"If you consolidated the two systems, would there be savings to retain and hire police?" Born asks. "That's something we'd have to negotiate with the county. But it's not like we suddenly wouldn't be spending any money."

Born allows that there might be some savings on administrative costs, but in the end, someone would have to fund the Minneapolis libraries--and any plan to shutter the system would be political suicide, not to mention public policy of the worst sort.

That aside, does he see savings significant enough in the library-merger theory to hire more cops? "No," Born says. "And I'd add that we've already cut way down on hours because of the LGA cuts.

"If [Pawlenty is] suggesting that we spend less money on services we've already cut thanks to the LGA cuts, then I'd counter that we're not going to see much in the way of savings," Born concludes. "We've already cut everywhere to bring back police officers."

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