Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's program to decorate parts of the city with artistic and spendy drinking fountains -- a splashy target for his foes in the gubernatorial campaign -- appears headed for a lower flow of funding.

The plan for the controversial $50,000 fountains would be pared from 10 fountains to six under a staff recommendation that's up for debate Monday by a City Council committee. That's after the city has made turtle-like progress in moving ahead with the program, for which Rybak proposed earmarking money back in 2007.

Just one fountain has been installed. That was in October, and it ran only two weeks before being turned off for the winter. It's a granite work by Peter Morales that incorporates American Indian creation stories with a fish, crow and a turtle that will spout water from its mouth. It's outside Ancient Traders Market, 1311 E. Franklin Av.

The fountain spending has arisen repeatedly in the gubernatorial race as Republicans and bloggers have employed it to attack DFL contender Rybak as a profligate spender. But Rybak, who initiated the idea, has said it's both an effort to promote city water and to continue the city's program of earmarking 2 percent of its bricks-and-mortar spending on public art. Mary Altman, the city's arts administrator, said such arts spending is common in other cities and states.

Both Rybak and Council President Barb Johnson played roles in turning down the funding flow. Rybak asked for a downsizing of the fountain project as a budget-cutting measure, Altman said. Johnson, saying she's mindful of critical public opinion, got the council to divert some of the fountain money to a City Hall elevator repair, although the arts budget is being made whole.

If rankings by the arts commission hold up, northeast Minneapolis would lose the only fountain for which it was slated, while greater downtown would lose three but still get two. South Minneapolis would get two more fountains, and the North Side would get one. Altman said she's hopes that outside money could still be raised for deleted fountains.

The city has committed $149,000 to the program to date from $500,000 earmarked in its 2008 budget. Half of the money comes from water fees paid by residents, while the rest comes from property tax-supported bonds. The city would save an estimated $183,000 by trimming four fountains.

Critics say the fountain money could have paid for keeping a few of the 10 cops laid off by the city this year. But the water fees couldn't be used for cops, although the property taxes could have been re-budgeted from bonds to the general fund.

The city plans to install this spring three of the five fountains that would remain if the staff recommendation is adopted; two more would follow in 2011.

The city had hoped to install one of the fountains at the Midtown YWCA last fall. Altman said that job had to be put off after a contractor poured concrete that wasn't as strong as the city specified for the bronze fountain. The concrete will be repoured when spring arrives.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438