Some may remember a song crooned by Frank Sinatra, “High Hopes,” that outlines the efforts of an ant and a ram in their struggle against what appear to be insurmountable odds. Those lyrics seem fitting for the outcome of 2015 legislative session. We had high hopes of our own for rural communities as the election pundits and legislative leaders dubbed this legislative session the “Greater Minnesota session.”
Chief among our “high hopes” in Austin were to see some partnership with the state to address our workforce housing issues, address local government aid (LGA) and provide a reprieve on overreaching waste- water rules.
We’re glad the Legislature showed some recognition of our problems with workforce housing by adopting a program that can address the gap in construction costs vs. affordability. This program allows increased income thresholds that enable both the public sector and renters to help make housing projects economically viable. We needed a program that recognizes that business growth and job creation warrant a partnership to provide the infrastructure to improve our local economy. Workforce housing has to be as important as low-income housing, or our job creators will be stifled.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that our rural communities’ request from the Legislature was for $60 million in tax credits and $40 million in grant assistance. The cost of housing projects certainly demands this type of investment, and in the context of affordable housing, getting a $100 million influx last year and ongoing appropriations of $50 million annually, the ongoing funding next year of $2 million doesn’t provide many resources to tackle expensive housing projects statewide. The pent-up demand and the reality that communities across the state have not seen new, purely market-rate projects for well more than 30 years dictate much better.
On another issue, while Gov. Mark Dayton made a decisive push for LGA in 2014 that provided relief for the deferred needs of many rural communities, we continue to be below the program’s 2002 noninflationary authorized levels. Local government aid recognizes the difficulties that low-tax-base cities have providing resources for core services and it continues to prove its effectiveness every day that LGA works. Imagine Austin needing to increase taxes 284 percent to replace its partnership with the state. While we still have challenges, the LGA program ensures that all Minnesota communities have a similar ability to provide basic services.
Regrettably, our statewide push for $45.5 million to restore the LGA program to the 2002 level suffered in what became an entanglement between passing a tax bill and transportation funding. This impasse affected the workforce housing proposal and our hope of strengthening the LGA program into the future. With a massive state surplus, we should have seen more consensus on this issue.
The environmental bill felt like a roller coaster, and our hope for a common-sense response to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) regulations that were approved without legislative oversight proved to be a casualty of rhetoric over substance. Yes, we all want cleaner water, and our wastewater plant in Austin is by its pure measure already sending out cleaner water than the Cedar River itself. We wanted our legislators to approve new rules to ensure that a proper balance is reached between costs and seeking alternative ways to improve the environment.
We also wanted an outside peer review and cost analysis of the standards to be done to better understand what communities might bear in costs, and more specifically what environmental improvements will result.
We don’t know what the financial impact will be — it could be as much as $20 million in costs to ratepayers, or a 32 percent increase in rates. It is unfortunate that a provision that was in both the House and Senate versions of the environment bill could not gain a final consideration for something that had bipartisan support in the Legislature.
Time will tell how this plays out, with Austin’s permit subject to renewal this summer. Austin and rural communities across the state will not stop asking fair questions and looking for partnerships to address our issues. We know actions and not words are the measure of whether our state leaders delivered on their claim that this would be the “Greater Minnesota Session.”
Like the ant in the song, we often feel like it is a struggle to “move that rubber tree plant” at the Legislature. But our feisty and determined ant (rural communities) will continue to work on our issues to make sure all Minnesotans enjoy the fruit of the economic recovery that produced the $2 billion surplus.
Craig Clark is the Austin, Minn., city administrator.