The Billion Dollar Bash

City Pages

[Editor's note: The print version of this story contained errors. This version reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the errors.]

For policy wonks, the Minneapolis city budget is a 550-page orgy of pie charts, graphs, and spreadsheets. For the rest of us, however, it might be more useful to parse out the budget in simpler terms.

By law, the mayor has to submit a budget proposal no later than August 15 of each year. The City Council, through committee meetings and "mark-up" sessions, then spends the rest of the year scrutinizing, shifting, and fretting over where the money is going. The council has to approve a final budget before the calendar year is over. Last week the Ways and Means/Budget Committee took up the 2006 budget in two mark-up sessions, each running nearly four hours, to make final amendments to the $1.3 billion package. The process, according to all parties, was smoother than in recent years, mostly due to a five-year plan implemented by the mayor and approved by the council two years ago. The final product is expected to be approved by the full council on December 19.


Some highlights:

· One big-money issue that led to little debate was the mayor's proposal to spend $7.4 million on permanently adding 71 new cops to the MPD. The number of cops on the street locally has been shrinking in recent years, and a small spike in crime around the city was getting costly politically. "It's all about public safety," says Barb Johnson, the Fourth Ward council rep who chairs the Ways and Means committee. "We were all very anxious to get more cops out on the street."


· The cop hires wouldn't be possible at all unless the city was spared cuts to Local Government Aid (LGA), state money that goes to municipalities. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a host of Republican legislators have been openly hostile to the idea of LGA, and have cut it in recent years. At the end of the last legislative session, LGA cuts were spared, thanks in large part to Larry Pogemiller, a state senator from northeast Minneapolis, and a host of outstate lawmakers whose communities were also feeling the cuts. The end result: Minneapolis got a one-time infusion of $12.3 million more to its general fund, and an ongoing increase of $7.3 million starting next year. (The state's total LGA contribution to Minneapolis for next year is projected to be $94 million, with $75 million going to the $318 million in the city's 2006 general fund.)


· The extra money will come in handy in paying down pension debt as well. In 2002, the city had to issue bonds to pay out the monies required each year from three pensions--the Minneapolis Police Relief Association, Minneapolis Fire Relief Association, and the Minneapolis Employees' Retirement Fund. All three have been draining the city's coffers in recent years, to the tune of some $10 million annually. The city's CFO Pat Born notes that a good portion of the LGA infusion, some $6.45 million, paying off some pension debt, saving the city some $600,000 annually.


· The city is finally unveiling its "311" system after January 1. After a couple of false starts, the one-stop phone number for citizens calling about city services is finally ready to fly. The cost of 311 is slated at $3.5 million, but Born says the system will be "revenue neutral" since the involved city departments will be kicking in money for it. "Now someone won't get directed to my office," Born says, "when they're calling to get a new garbage can."


· For the second year in a row, the council went against Rybak with regard to "art for public places" money. Each year, Rybak has proposed to bump up that budget by some $400,000. Last year, the council approved half of that. This year, the council approved the increase, but only if the money was earmarked for other uses--such as pedestrian walkways and other public works projects. "It just seemed to me that the money should have potentially more flexible uses," Johnson says.


· Another small source of controversy was the creation of a new city/county staff position to coordinate the efforts of various local public and private bodies that work with the homeless. The city's end of the cost will be paid for with federal money from a Community Development Block Grant. The controversy over the initiative, which was presented to the council by Rybak and Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, stemmed mostly from the reaction of outgoing Fifth Ward council member Natalie Johnson Lee, who claims the position was never publicly posted. "You can't have closed hires with federal money," Johnson Lee complained. "It's not an open process and is a misappropriation of federal funds. Somebody could sue if they wanted to." (The person hired for the position? Cathy TenBroeke, who was once Dorfman's assistant.)


· One of the debates in the council chambers last week revolved around whether the money from the city's new "photocop" red-light program should be "allocated" in the budget--that is, spent. There's certainly quite a bit of it--estimates presented to council members by MPD Lt. Greg Reinhardt and finance director Heather Johnston indicated that revenue from the program was some $2.4 million this year. But they both warned that, after expenses, the city will only see some $1.4 million. Further, they note, it would not be wise to project that kind of revenue for 2006: For starters, Reinhardt noted that fewer people are running red lights as they become aware of the program, which is sure to drive down revenues. "It's like taxing cigarettes and getting fewer smokers," Barb Johnson notes. And council president Paul Ostrow warned that it would look unseemly if the city treated photocop as a revenue source rather than a public safety matter. Finally, Reinhardt added that he fully expected the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the city over the red-light camera program in the coming year, possibly jeopardizing its future.

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