In her budget address on Thursday, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges gave cause for both cheer and alarm. Cheer, because the mayor proposed real investments in our residents and took steps to hack bureaucracy’s vines from the path of our city’s would-be job creators. Alarm, because we’re still wasting money on bells and whistles, missing opportunities for vital reforms and forgetting that not all of us can afford property tax increases.
First, the good. Too often, elected officials use the word “investment” to describe any new spending, but Hodges’ proposal to increase spending on public safety really is an investment that will yield a return over time. By increasing the number of sworn officers and community service officers on the Minneapolis Police Department, City Hall will enable the force to build stronger relationships in the community. Body cameras on officers will stop the hemorrhaging of cash to resolve incidents and allegations of police misconduct — and, more important, will foster citizens’ trust in the force. And adding approximately 30 firefighters will ensure our first responders have the personnel they need to keep our growing city safe.
Another true investment: The money Hodges proposes to spend on early childhood education. Her proposal reflects the consensus across the political spectrum that if we greet young children’s natural enthusiasm for learning with enriching instruction, we’ll ensure that the smallest among us are ready to thrive in kindergarten and beyond.
The budget address also noted that City Attorney Susan Segal is working to slash the red tape currently entangling entrepreneurs who want to employ tomorrow’s workers. That’s a good first step toward relieving the underemployment and unemployment afflicting too many of our fellow city residents.
So, there’s plenty to cheer, but also plenty of reason for alarm. First, the spending. The mayor’s budget address conspicuously omitted any reference to the proposed streetcar line, but nevertheless the city is still siphoning funds away from essentials to pay for engineering of the Nicollet Avenue line — an epic boondoggle with a price tag of $54 million per mile. The money would be better spent on building heated bus shelters along existing bus lines.
To those who prefer the streetcar: Are you willing to go to an unsheltered bus stop on a toe-numbing February morning and explain to a mother guarding her two children from the wind that you prioritize a shiny trolley over her children’s comfort? (And to those who argue that we should build both the streetcar and the bus shelters, I ask for some of the seeds from your money tree.)
Speaking of extravagances, the mayor used her address to propose an $8 million program to recycle organic materials like food scraps and dryer lint. Under the plan, every household in Minneapolis would have to pay $40 a year to fund the program regardless of whether they wanted to participate in it. Well-intentioned proponents note that diverting organic waste to recycling would obviate the need to burn it in the trash facility near Target Field.
True, but that statement ignores the negative impacts of driving another set of trucks through the city’s alleys and the positive potential for allowing organics to decompose in a modern landfill and capturing the resulting methane for energy. Furthermore, if the city required families to spend that $40 a year, what important thing would those families then cut to find the money? School supplies? A bike helmet for a budding bicyclist? Healthier food from the farmers market? Elected officials forget: Families in the real world have to make these kinds of choices.
After wasteful spending, the second cause for alarm: The city’s review of regulations barely scratches the surface of determining how our state, county and city should divide responsibility for governing in the 21st century. The current model is marred by duplicative back offices and is unsustainably expensive. To fix the problem, I encourage smart, dedicated public servants like the mayor, Hennepin County Board Member Marion Greene and newly appointed City Coordinator Spencer Cronk to combine procurement, IT and accounting functions and implement open-source, cloud-based software platforms for the benefit of both the city and county. The combination of certain functions by St. Paul and Ramsey County; the merger of city and county library functions, and the University of Minnesota’s use of Google Apps all provide instructive models.
The third cause for alarm: the proposed levy increase of 2.4 percent. No matter how well-intentioned the increase, if we keep making it more expensive to live in our city we’ll price out the socioeconomically diverse residents we claim to want as neighbors. The mayor acknowledges that part of the proposed levy increase is due to increased spending, which is irresponsible as long as we’re still buying duplicative bureaucracy and a streetcar we don’t need.
In summary, there are strengths and pitfalls in Hodges’ respectable first cut at the budget. The City Council now has the opportunity to partner with the mayor and Board of Estimate and Taxation to develop a final budget that empowers and respects all Minneapolitans. I wish them all well in the process.
Cam Winton, a Republican, is a resident of Minneapolis and an attorney in the power industry. He was a candidate for mayor as an independent in 2013.