R.T. Rybak: Artist-designed fountains take no money from other priorities

  • Article by: R.T. RYBAK
  • July 22, 2008 - 8:25 AM

"Fifty thousand dollars for fountains with smelly water." Reading some of the recent articles and e-mails about artist-designed drinking fountains, you may be tempted to ask: What is the mayor thinking? Please take a minute to understand a few facts:

The idea: Every year Minneapolis spends a small percentage of its budget on public art projects. This year, to mark Minneapolis' 150th birthday, I proposed that the public art budget be focused on artist-designed drinking fountains. Minneapolis' name means "city of waters" and, along with adding life to our streets, the hope was that this idea would create a model for private building owners to also begin installing more drinking fountains on their properties. We want this to be a city that celebrates public art, where you can walk down the street and get a free drink of quality public water, instead of more and more water out of plastic bottles that clog landfills and cost a lot of money. The idea has already captured the imagination of building owners and is being copied by San Francisco and other cities around the country.

The money: The money for this project cannot be used for more important priorities like public safety, lowering property taxes or bus fares. It comes from two dedicated funds. The first is the city's capital budget. The art project is 1 percent of this budget and, while all public dollars are precious, I believe that in a city where the private sector has put almost $1 billion into arts projects in recent years, it's right for the city government to do its small part to support public art. The second funding source is the city's water fund, which can legally be used only on water projects. Our modest investment in drinking fountains represents just over one-third of 1 percent -- meaning that for every dollar in our water fund, just three-tenths of a penny goes to this project.

The water: Minneapolis has exceptionally good water, the result of years of significant investment and constant monitoring. On average, Minneapolis completes about 500 chemical, physical and bacteriological examinations on our water supply each and every day. When it was time for Minneapolis to replace its aging water-treatment facilities, my predecessors wisely chose to invest $150 million to build ultrafiltration systems, which remove particles so small that a standard microscope cannot detect them.

Taste is subjective, but even on this front Minneapolis water does pretty well, winning taste tests organized by public radio and the Star Tribune.

This is not the most important issue I am working on. My summer has been spent primarily preparing a city budget that will keep spending on public safety, increase spending on transportation, advance our youth violence prevention plan, help improve our schools and address many other priorities more important than drinking fountains. But a few years from now, when you can walk down the street and get drink from a beautiful fountain that adds life to the street, I hope you will see that this idea is not all wet.

R.T. Rybak is mayor of Minneapolis.

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