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Continued: Twin Cities look to save through sharing

  • Article by: CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 17, 2009 - 10:57 PM

Desperate fiscal times call for creative fiscal measures.

So say the mayors of Minnesota's two largest cities.

As the effects of a projected $4.6 billion state budget deficit trickle down, local government leaders say it's time to find new ways to join hands to maintain services and save money.

Whether it's forming partnerships to get discounts on purchases, outsourcing services to a nearby municipality or a full-on merger, governments have been finding ways over the years to be more efficient. There's plenty more to do and, given the economic times, it appears there's a renewed push to work together.

"Reform is not new to us, but the challenges to all the partners in this region makes more people motivated," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

He and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman have instructed their department directors to get creative and look at ways to streamline services, bring in new revenue and cut costs. Said Bruce Beese, director of St. Paul's Public Works department: "Who knows where it will go? But in this global economy, borders tend to get silly." To be sure, Minnesota has plenty of borders -- with 87 counties, more than 850 cities and about 340 school districts.

For example, Beese's department maintains traffic signals for about a dozen other governments to bring in some extra revenue. He said that he has had discussions with counterparts in Minneapolis and Ramsey County and that all services are up for discussion, although snow plowing is probably the least practical.

Coleman said it's also important that cities look within their own departments for ways to streamline services and costs. He cited St. Paul's safety and inspections department for combining once-separate functions.

Combining operations isn't new

This isn't the first time Minneapolis and St. Paul have been forced to tighten their belts and in some cases combine operations. In 2003 Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut local government aid by $170 million statewide.

A few examples of significant mergers include Hennepin County's takeover of the Minneapolis library system and St. Paul and Ramsey County's merged 911 communications center. Although a complete merger isn't likely, Ramsey County and St. Paul library officials have been meeting to find ways to share resources, such as technology, said county library director Susan Nemitz.

Not every consolidation really does save money or improve or maintain a service, the mayors said. The priority when discussing possible options with other governments is to save money without cutting the level of service. "Service delivery has to be key," Coleman said.

The mayors differ on the way to go about pursuing partnerships. Coleman said that as the eastern metro regional center, St. Paul should look first to work with its surrounding suburbs.

Rybak has broader changes in mind, such as a regional fire service that could cover the entire metro or a regional water service. He even suggested the establishment of a statewide pool of money to which cities and counties could apply for money to study and start on "sweeping changes." Such a fund could be necessary because Pawlenty has said cities need to get by with less help from the state.

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148

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