The city of Elko New Market, one of the stingiest you’ll find anywhere, had never before paid for a scientific survey aimed at finding out what the folks who live there like and dislike.
Now that the results are in, it sounds like it wasn’t all that important to do.
Drinking water’s a problem? The city knew that and is planning a new treatment plant.
Snowplowing in winter is “only fair,” far from excellent? The city knew that and has hired a public-works guy.
The town of 4,000 lacks even a fast-food joint, much less a supermarket? The city knew that too, though the fix there is not so readily within its grasp.
The challenge for a city the size of Elko New Market, in fact, is to avoid getting ahead of itself: Gearing up so much for the needs of newly arriving commuters with high-amenity suburban backgrounds that it overspends and forfeits the tax advantage it now holds.
“We’re so small,” said City Administrator Tom Terry, “that just adding one new police officer means a significant increase to our entire budget. But I think we’ve done this well. Other cities, before the bubble burst, were expanding infrastructure and services based on aggressive growth projections, while we tended to be much more conservative in our approach.”
Indeed, several exurban cities around the metro borrowed tens of millions for things like oversized sewer plants and ended up with galloping rate increases and severe financial pain as growth slackened.
Elko remained cautious, and civic leaders say that’s one reason why the new survey shows a high level of satisfaction in a number of areas compared to other suburbs and exurbs.
“I really think the city has tried to do a good job not creating a bureaucracy,” said town banker Bob Vogel. “We never had a parks department. Heck, we only got a fire department 30 years ago. We’d have 20-minute response times [to fires — 5 minutes is considered more like it]. People have recognized we have to participate and take care of ourselves because there’s no big entity serving us. Call it small-town charm, call it common sense.
“I and some others started a fire department in 1978 by raising $2,500 in a community auction and going up to Lake Johanna to get a used truck, because there was a feeling of, ‘If we don’t do this, it won’t happen.’ ”
Today’s Elko New Market emerges from the survey proudest of two findings:
• Its description as an elite, “best practices” city others could learn from when it comes to high customer satisfaction, and
• A series of unusually high rankings on other services despite its rank in the bottom sixth for per-capita spending on operations among Minnesota cities over 2,500 population. A lot of times smaller cities actually have high per-capita spending because there are fewer households to share basic costs that all cities need to cover.
Cops are a case in point. Despite a bare-bones police operation, with many hours covered by sheriff’s deputies, the city’s rating for police patrols is in the top 10 percent in the metro as a whole and the top 5 percent among exurbs, city officials say.
Parks, too: A satisfaction rate of 96 percent for recreational programs places it in the top 25 percent among exurbs. The city says that’s despite the fact that most rec programs have come online only in the past few years. An alternative reading: There’s still a glow of newness and gratitude around such programs precisely because they’re new. Residents speak proudly of the hundreds of kids taking part.
Overall, 90 percent described the city’s quality of life as good or excellent, again a notable high: top 10 percent for exurbs, top 25 percent for all metro cities, many of whom share the same local pollster, a firm called Decision Resources.
To be fair, Elko does have some built-in advantages a lot of those places don’t have.
It’s just off Interstate 35W, meaning a fairly quick jump into the thick of things, especially now that MnPass lanes farther north make quick work of the trip downtown for those willing to pay.
It’s part of Scott County, meaning it can take advantage of an aggressive program of sharing costly equipment and technology with the county and the three big suburbs to its north — things like excavators, which can cost a fortune yet be rarely used.
“We smaller towns wouldn’t have nearly the capacity we have if not for the bigger-city partners,” said Bob Malz, police chief in Jordan. “Computer-wise, for instance, if we were stand-alone, we’d be hurting. Records, dispatch, it’s a lot of things.”
Yet Elko New Market’s tax rate is lower than other outlying Scott cities.
“If you take a median home here,” Terry said, “and compare what you pay on the same value home in Belle Plaine, Jordan, Lonsdale, Savage, Prior Lake, Farmington, Burnsville, we do very well, and on top of that, what you get there [in a home] is much less than in suburban communities, so the lower tax rate is a multiplier on that value.”
Beyond that, said Chamber of Commerce head Todd Anderson, who lives in New Prague:
“Elko truly is a small town,” as opposed to a suburb which fancies itself as being one. “I grew up in Burnsville and Lakeville at a time when they were not yet fully suburbanized, when 35 was one lane. Now it’s towns like Elko that, as far as small-town living, are the real deal.”