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Now that it's almost over, Mike Myser can confess just how determined he was not to run for mayor of Prior Lake.
Having been recruited by a group of City Hall critics, he said, "I literally called them 30 minutes before the filing deadline and said, 'Did you find anyone else?' and they said, 'No, not for mayor.' When I did file, I saw two other names listed. I didn't know either one. And literally on the sidewalk outside, I called both of them and left messages saying, 'Hi, I'm a reluctant candidate, can I meet you and see if you can carry the torch for this race instead of me?'
"I met them both. One seemed way too far to the right while the other was depicting Prior Lake as this golden city on a hill. And so I decided to go for it."
He got the job. Today, as he prepares to leave it, having decided against filing for re-election, he finds himself in a delicate stance vis a vis the deeply divided community.
He never ceased to be a critic. When he recalls with a smile the city-hired pollster who was surprised to find a place with such a large group of "PPOs" -- "permanently pissed off" -- it's clear that he's not completely out of sympathy with those folks.
Yet he was also able to get his way on some things, and emerges with a lot of respect for some things the city does.
Motivated to run in the first place by the disconnect he sensed between City Hall's depiction of its low tax rate and his own growing tax bill, he leaves proudly brandishing a spreadsheet showing a big change in the tax picture. A per-household tax levy that had been seeing hikes for years in the 5 to 6 percent range, his figures show, were throttled back -- and then fell.
City officials don't disagree, but note that the most decisive drop involves the use of $700,000 in city reserves.
"The council is aware that this is a short-term funding option and is not sustainable," said finance chief Jerilyn Erickson. "The council will be considering the reinstatement of tax levy or other strategies for 2013 at an upcoming meeting."
Done and undone
Myser arrived in the city in 2003 and had never run for anything after student council. He's a business guy, working in computer software, and he brought a business point of view.
It bugs him that he leaves office without really being able to see through -- though he did help launch and push -- a system that would better reflect how government is performing.
"I have asked for appropriate metrics to be put in that are more honest and reflective of the quality of our service and our cost-effectiveness," he said. "We're in the process of trying to put those metrics in place for each department in the city. I won't be able to see that through, but it could have a lasting impact for decades if we have proper metrics. Residents would get to see what happens, how their dollars are spent."
He also understands the dangers of transparency. People, polls show, now perceive the city as safe. Crime rates would be one metric. "Once we talk about crime more, will there be a perception of being less safe? Probably. It's still the right thing to do."
Not all bad
Few critics of government emerge from their own experience of elective office without gaining a much richer appreciation for the difficulties and successes of public life, and Myser is no exception.
"I went through life not aware of what a city did, and once I got off the couch and participated, my eyes were opened," he said. "So, as much as I have some frustrations with things the staff does, I found them to be outstanding on some things."
Cases in point:
Collaboration: "Our staff, and I give Frank [Boyles, the city administrator] credit, looks for ways to save through collaboration and does great stuff. For instance, staff is working on IT collaboration with Scott County, using the county's fiber-optic ring, where they would house equipment that we would access."
Water quality: "We are a leader not just statewide but nationally in finding creative solutions on water quality, such as applying a molasses-like solution to streets rather than chunks and chunks of salt [that can make its way into bodies of water]. So I've been made aware of really great stuff the city does."
He also, though, learned some things that worry him. For example, the city's fiscal model relies on cross subsidies from other Twin Cities communities. That stems from a tax base-sharing program known as "fiscal disparities," which is intended to share the wealth from cities like Shakopee and Burnsville, fortunate enough to have big expressways that draw lucrative commercial development.
"I thank their residents," he said, "but the fact is that depending on politics at the state level," where lawmakers could decide one day to redirect dollars away from affluent communities, "we're at risk of a $800,000 hole in our budget, and that's a big deal."
One big answer, in his eyes, is to make the city more welcoming to business, to build up its commercial tax base. Whether a city so far from freeways can ever expect certain types of major commercial development is a matter for debate, but he says the city under his watch did take steps aimed at encouraging restaurants and other businesses.
"I'd like to see more of that, and would like to still be here to cement it," he said. But the job just proved too much to deal with given his private life -- he married since opting to run for office -- and his business, which is busier than it was.
There's been turmoil during his time in office, but he doesn't apologize for that.
"Democracy is a messy business. The other side has strongly held views. They've been elected. Residents have given them votes as well. That's the way the system works. I may be more fiscally conservative than the majority, but I don't think anyone would say I'm extreme."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285