Jill Burcum: Is city’s tax board vital or a luxury?

  • Article by: JILL BURCUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2010 - 6:52 PM

Democracy is messy,'' was Carol Becker's comment to me as she left the Star Tribune building last fall. It was the parting shot in the disagreement between us that had begun that afternoon during the newspaper's Editorial Board endorsement interviews for the Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation. Becker was seeking reelection.

I'd argued for a streamlined Minneapolis city government and had favored an amendment that would have had the City Council assume Board of Estimate duties. Becker, not surprisingly, was against. She also was a passionate supporter of a wholly independent Park Board, painting it as great bulwark of democracy, one preventing wholesale gutting of the parks by the City Council.

I thought of her "democracy is messy" line when I saw her recent heartfelt plea for help on local media critic David Brauer's blog. Becker didn't win the paper's endorsement but was handily reelected. Now her board is weighing Minneapolis's proposed property tax increases, which come in the midst of a painful recession, when many people have had their hours or wages cut -- or worse, have lost their job. Becker, sadly, is one. She's just been laid off and understands just how burdensome the extra taxes will be for Minneapolis homeowners, which is why she issued the online call for budget solutions.

What Becker didn't say last fall, and what she and others who campaigned vigorously against streamlined city government have brushed under the rug, is that the peculiar form of city democracy they espouse is not only messy, it's expensive. Very few other cities have a board of estimate and taxation. Cities with park boards running a separate police force aren't common, either.

So when Becker and others like her convinced voters to shoot down consolidation, they also convinced voters to choose a more expensive, layer-filled and tradition-bound form of government. And they sent this message to any official weighing serious structural changes to enhance efficiency: Don't even think about it.

Becker understandably laments the immense cutbacks in local government aid, the state program that provides financial assistance to a number of Minnesota cities. Cities across the state will face real budget crises if LGA disappears. Figuring out the program's future is one of the most contentious issues the new governor and legislators have to tackle in this era of the $5.8 billion state budget deficit.

While Becker and supporters won the Board of Estimate battle, and while they've kept the independent Park Board and its police force, it was a Pyrrhic victory. The Byzantine nature of Minneapolis' city government makes it appear that there are still plenty of places to find savings. (The Board of Estimate's annual budget is about $185,000.) That makes it harder to plead for those LGA dollars from the state -- a shame, because keeping Minnesota's central cities healthy is a good investment.

Becker and supporters convinced the city to keep its baroque governing model. They shouldn't be shocked by the bill coming due.

Jill Burcum is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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