Editorial: Key Twin Cities leaders are tone deaf

  • Article by: EDITORIAL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2011 - 5:14 PM

Minneapolis bike job, St. Paul schools deal are ill-timed.

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Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Two clueless moves this week by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and St. Paul school officials provide more fodder for spending-cuts-only politicians in the Minnesota Legislature and the U.S. Congress.

This is an era of frightening state and federal budget deficits, not to mention soaring local property taxes. Yet after a year in which many public officials protested austerity with wails of "You're cutting us to the bone," Rybak and St. Paul school officials haplessly served up fresh evidence of fat yet to be liposuctioned.

On Thursday, the Star Tribune reported that the city of Minneapolis is hiring a "bicycle and pedestrian coordinator." While many cities, including St. Paul, have a staffer with this urban planning specialization, the state's biggest city is in the midst of a budget crisis.

Rybak's office posted a grim July news release detailing a "waterfall of cuts" because the state whacked local government aid. More recently, the mayor vetoed a City Council plan to save 10 firefighter jobs.

A day after the veto, the job posting for the bike/pedestrian coordinator went up. Salary range: $61,000 to $84,000.

Firefighters understandably pounced, calling the position "fluff." That's too harsh a judgment for a safety-related position, but the timing is lousy and the pay is startling. The job looks like something that's nice but not essential. The hiring should have been tabled or other options explored.

The city of Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, sought private donations for a time to help fund its bike and pedestrian coordinator. Could Blue Cross Blue Shield, which is behind the "Nice Ride" bike program, have helped fund this position?

Could another staffer shoulder some new responsibilities? The mayor's office said it unsuccessfully tried to find a private source to fund the job. That should have been a signal to delay the move.

Rybak's office at least acknowledged that the timing of the posting was "unfortunate." In contrast, St. Paul school officials and Superintendent Valeria Silva laughably continued to defend paying Silva up to $40,000 to move from Woodbury to St. Paul. Silva and St. Paul School Board Vice Chair Jean O'Connell offered the classic "our hands are tied" defense.

Silva's three-year contract calls for her to live in St. Paul, they both pointed out. Nothing they can do. Common sense dictates otherwise, especially given that St. Paul schools already have had teacher layoffs as part of $25 million in budget cuts earlier this year.

St. Paul residents also face a proposed 6.5 percent levy increase. Silva and the school board members should have realized it didn't make sense to pay thousands to move Silva 12 miles, even if former superintendents have had similar deals. That no one did so suggests disturbingly weak leadership in one of the state's biggest districts.

Silva already owns a condo in St. Paul -- a place officials said she needs after long days -- so she's already a property owner in the city. Moving her likely won't cost $40,000, but even half that amount -- $1,667 per mile moved -- is too much in this era of scarce public dollars.

O'Connell said it's important to have Silva show her commitment to St. Paul by living within the city limits. But again, this is a nicety not a necessity.

Better that Silva, whose starting base pay was $180,000, show her commitment by doing a great job and staying with St. Paul schools vs. using the district as a stepping stone like her short-timer predecessor.

The Tea Party's rise unmistakably signals that voters are fed up with current government spending. The moves by Rybak, Silva and the St. Paul school board only serve to reinforce attitudes about government waste and inefficiency.

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