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How did a nice guy like Sean Kershaw become the bureaucrat in charge of the most crumbling, car-damaging, curse-provoking streets in these Twin Cities?

"Public works was always my secret favorite job," Kershaw explained.

I already knew 20 years ago, when Kershaw was the youthful executive director of the Citizens League, that he was a major-league policy wonk. What I didn't realize until after he became St. Paul's director of public works in 2020 is that he also possesses near-superhuman tolerance for vitriolic abuse.

That's what he's been getting for months from drivers in Minnesota's capital city, first about snowplowing (or the lack thereof), then about this season's incredible potholes.

On one recent day, Kershaw told me, he took heat in the morning from a well-heeled fellow who couldn't fathom why his $35k-plus annual property tax payments weren't sufficient to keep Summit Avenue drivable. Later that day, he got a blast from a Frogtown resident who was convinced that his neighborhood's terrible streets were the result of the city's willful neglect of the poor.

"It's rare to find that much common ground in public policy," an unfazed Kershaw observed. "Infrastructure is important to everybody. Our work touches more people than that of any other department."

Fascination with infrastructure might explain how Kershaw landed on St. Paul's pothole hot seat. But it strikes me that it's the converse — a disregard for infrastructure (and a good deal more) for the past 20 years — that explains how his position got so hot.

"The thing about infrastructure, or any other capital asset, is that it doesn't suddenly get bad. It gets bad a little bit every year," Kershaw said.

That's what's been happening in St. Paul. Kershaw recalled that in 2003, the Legislature and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty resolved a major state budget deficit by, among other things, cutting aid to cities by 25%. Those cuts have been very slow to be restored.

St. Paul "got as much LGA [local government aid] in absolute dollars in 2022 as we did in 2002," Kershaw said. So much for the circa-1970s Minnesota Miracle promise that property wealth would not determine the quality of public services in this state.

Growing cities could adjust to lagging state aid by increasing their property tax levies without overloading taxpayers. St. Paul has not been in that position. Kershaw calls his city "tax capacity poor."

As a result, year after year, St. Paul officials have strived (with mixed success) to protect taxpayers, prioritize public safety and postpone whatever spending could be delayed. Do that for a year or two, and nobody notices. Do it for 20 years, and the city road staff shrinks from 110 to 70, Shepard Road becomes undrivable, and everybody hollers at the public works director.

Road conditions could get worse, too, and not just in St. Paul. The other culprit that's wreaking havoc on St. Paul streets this year is climate change. In addition to record-setting snowfall, this winter brought three significant bouts of rain, each followed by the ever-popular freeze-thaw cycle that breaks asphalt into crumbs.

"Thirty years ago, we had winters that stayed cold," Kershaw said. "Now they don't. This winter has done permanent damage to our roads — and it's a preview of the winters to come."

Kershaw and his boss, Mayor Melvin Carter, have proposed a remedy: a 1% sales tax increase in the city, dedicated to city streets and park repairs and raising $30 million a year for 20 years. It needs three green lights to proceed. It got the first in January from the St. Paul City Council, on a 6-1 vote.

Needed next is an OK from the Legislature. The proposal appears to have hit a speed bump there. Particularly in the state House, legislators are cool to letting cities get much control of the sales tax, lest that revenue-raising tool be lost to the state. What's more, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce hates the idea.

If St. Paul's request prevails at the Legislature, Carter and Kershaw will then need to take their case to the voters in a referendum. Only with city voters' approval could the dedicated tax be imposed.

The ugly aspect of a sales tax increase is that it's regressive, falling disproportionately hard on lower-income people. But when the alternative is higher property taxes, which are even more regressive, or roads so bad that drivers are stuck with costly car repairs, the sales tax begins to look tolerable, if not pretty.

"It's easy to not like sales tax ideologically. Practically, what else will help us catch up?" Kershaw asked.

"A big and durable increase in state aid to cities," I'd reply. But that may be an ideological answer — and an overly optimistic one to boot. What I say when I'm driving in St. Paul is that it's time to get practical and fix the damned streets.

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.