Fewer city snowplows. Aging police cruisers not replaced. Park restrooms not built. Pothole repairs left undone. Municipal employees laid off.

In those ways and many more, the first decade of the new century has proved a brutal one for Minnesota's cities.

A new evaluation by the state auditor shows that by nearly every measure finances in the state's 800-plus cities were whipsawed between 2000 and 2009.

For more than two years, the League of Minnesota Cities has been tracking cities' budget-cutting actions, compiling a list of more than 4,500 of them.

"So much work is being delayed or pushed out that the cost of doing the work has become much greater, so the strategy of delay only works for so long," said Lena Gould, policy analyst for the league.

The report also found that as federal and state aid shrank during the decade, property taxes have filled in the gap. In 2009, property taxes provided 37 percent of cities' revenue, up from 23 percent in 2000.

Between 2003 and 2004, corresponding with a large cut in local government aid, revenue from property taxes for the first time surpassed revenue from state and federal aid, the audit found. The gap has continued to grow.

Overall, in inflation-adjusted dollars, cities' revenues decreased by 11 percent between 2000 and 2009, while their spending dropped by 8 percent during that period, the audit concluded.

During 2008 and 2009, corresponding with the depths of the recession, cities' revenue declined as did their spending, even as capital spending on infrastructure projects encountered what State Auditor Rebecca Otto called "a steep decline." Spending on everything from street maintenance to new construction has "just tanked," particularly since 2006, she said.

During the decade, the audit found that total spending by cities increased from $4.12 billion to $5.38 billion, but when adjusted for inflation that actually represents a decrease of 8 percent.

Despite the grim statistics, Otto said that "we're not seeing a crisis by any means" for Minnesota's cities." Despite reports of impending municipal defaults and possible bankruptcies of cities elsewhere in the nation, Otto said that she's "not aware of" that possibility facing any of the state's cities.

Bob von Sternberg • 651-222-0973