Duluth Mayor Don Ness caught our attention with his answer to a Star Tribune reporter’s recent question about the agenda he will leave to his successor when he steps down at year’s end. “What are the challenges going forward?” she asked.
“I think the age of our infrastructure,” he said, adding, “The street infrastructure issue … was an issue that, for the long-term health of our city, we need to fix, and I haven’t done that.”
Notably, Ness’ response is an almost word-for-word echo of what the Star Tribune Editorial Board heard recently from Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges as she offered a briefing on her 2016 budget proposals. When asked what was absent from her plan that ought to be there, Hodges said a long-term plan to upgrade aging streets, sewers and related infrastructure. She doesn’t yet see a politically acceptable way to pay a bill that was pegged in 2011 at $15 million per year for the foreseeable future, just to stop further deterioration of city streets.
An editorial writer heard much the same from smaller-city mayors at July’s annual meeting of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. “There isn’t any bigger issue” for Minnesota’s small- and midsize cities than the worsening condition of the state’s more than 22,000 miles of city streets and the cost of keeping up with changing water quality standards, said coalition legislative lobbyist Tim Flaherty.
It stands to reason: Many Minnesota municipalities developed about the same time 125 years ago and established water systems and arterial streets not long thereafter. That infrastructure is aging apace, too, and its maintenance was deferred in many places during the tight-money years that began with state aid cuts in 2002.
Crumbling streets and substandard water systems may be local responsibilities, but they are pervasive and costly enough to warrant state government’s attention and assistance. Establishing just how pervasive is a project nearing completion in the office of State Auditor Rebecca Otto. Funded by a grant from the University of Minnesota, the auditor’s office is preparing a one-stop inventory of Minnesota’s city-based infrastructure — streets, bridges, drinking water, sanitary and storm sewers, municipal utilities.
By next year, Otto aims to offer local and state officials an accessible, map-based overview of Minnesota’s municipal infrastructure, including its age and condition. Her goal is to encourage timely maintenance that can extend infrastructure’s useful life span and to alert lawmakers about trouble spots.
“A lot of cities don’t have an adequate tax base or population base to get at this problem. We are at risk of having crises pop up,” Otto said. “I want to get us out of the dark about this. We can tweak our policies now if we can see what’s coming.”
Cities are already looking to the state for help. They’ll ask the 2016 Legislature for a bonding bill ample enough to enlarge the Public Facilities Authority, which offers low-interest loans for wastewater improvement projects.
For their streets, cities seek the establishment of a dependable, dedicated fund to be distributed via a needs-based formula. They want special consideration given to cities with populations of fewer than 5,000, which are ineligible for a share of gas tax proceeds. One possible funding source: a $10 surcharge on license-tab renewals. Another: a quarter-cent sales-tax option in small cities or the dedication of an existing tax.
The 2015 Legislature responded with just $12.5 million for small-city street improvements. Flaherty called that “a drop in the bucket.” We’d call it a down payment on what needs to be a long-term financing plan. For decades, Minnesotans have demonstrated the wisdom of pooling their resources via state government to keep municipal services healthy and affordable throughout the state. The looming problem of aging municipal infrastructure should not be an exception to that pattern.