A weeklong visit by the League of Minnesota Cities culminated Friday afternoon with a public meeting and input session on the values residents think should be considered in making difficult city budget decisions.
The LMC this summer is conducting a 12-city tour through which it is taking and compiling input from Minnesotans on "Cities, Services & Funding."
The project, according to Don Reeder, LMC public affairs manager, is necessary because cities no longer can maintain the status quo.
A year ago, LMC asked the University of Minnesota to crunch some numbers and look at the current systems cities use to provide services and obtain revenue.
The U reported back that if the status quo is maintained, cities of all kinds - size, region, etc. - will be dealing with deficits by 2015, Reeder said.
"Some cities, we know, are almost already to that point," he said. "Cities are facing very tough choices in order to balance their budgets."
No two Minnesota cities are identical in the services they provide and the ways they provide them. The LMC decided to embark on a statewide tour to gather input from a cross-section of Minnesotans.
Forty cities applied to host LMC sessions. Twelve were selected.
Each city visit includes four meetings, which focus individually on the services cities should provide, the delivery of those services, paying for services, and the considerations and values that should be kept in mind when making tough choices.
Cities were selected based on their ability to connect meeting organizers with small groups of the public, such as a Chamber of Commerce, for instance.
Meetings this week in Bemidji included sessions with Bemidji Rotarians, the Downtown Development Authority and Northview Senior Apartments residents.
The fourth meeting, held Friday afternoon at First Lutheran Church, was open to the public.
Friday's session opened with a question: In the past week, how many different Minnesota cities have you spent time in?
Answers ranged from more than two to more than 10 and beyond.
But the specific answers weren't as important as getting participants in the right frame of mind, said Maxine Norman, with University of Minnesota Extension, which is a partner in the LMC project.
"It's not necessarily about Bemidji or a city the size of this city," Norman said. "Think statewide."
The 18 residents who took part in the session listened to a short presentation and then provided input in four- and five-person groups.
Organizers offered brief recaps of all the sessions held in Bemidji, but noted that full, detailed reports will be taken into consideration as the information is collaborated this fall.
At the meeting with the Bemidji Rotary Club, participants ranked high services such as public safety, water and roads/streets. They believed cities should continue to provide these services.
They also said the state should pay for the mandates it issues.
Some said they could live without street-sweeping, transportation and recreational programs. Others mentioned parks, libraries and waste recycling services.
However, participants also acknowledged that other residents could use such services more frequently than themselves.
Participants also acknowledged that they could see the services that they rely on changing in the future, perhaps as they age, even though they, now, may not wish to pay for them.
Delivery of services
Members of the DDA responded, overall, positively to proposed changes in service delivery as long as the services were still provided.
For instance, consolidation or merging of services and program was OK. Privatizing or contraction for services also was OK.
But participants did not react as positively to service delivery changes that would perhaps compromise the quality of services such as police and fire.
Paying for services
Residents of Northview believed that community residents should pay for many of the services provided by a city, but that non-residents also should contribute through, perhaps, fees for amenities such as parks and community centers.
The impact of higher taxes and fees on those living on fixed incomes was listed as a concern.
Many said the state should continue revenue-sharing with cities (i.e. through local Government Aid), and several thought the amount should increase.
Overall, there was a negative reaction to the idea of providing city services based on a local sales tax. Although, some supported a local sales tax for a specific purpose if it was to be temporary.
Reactions also were negative toward the idea of implementing a special fee for street maintenance.
In the final meeting, open to the public, the group focused on the question: What are the most important considerations to keep in mind in making these tough choices?
All suggestions and ideas were accepted and then each person voted for his or her top three answers.
In no particular order, some of the most-liked answers were: health, safety and well-being of area residents; using science, i.e. water quality, to ensure health and safety; quality of life and livability; combined services, such as a joint powers system; fair tax or a sales/consumption tax; having a vision or intelligent plan in city design; consolidation and sharing of services (such as between cities or a city-county partnership, for example); and consideration of vulnerable populations through an advocate, to hear them and listen to their needs.
The LMC has six more cities to visit before wrapping up the tour in mid-August.
This fall, the information and input will be collaborated into a report and sent to policymakers and others.
More information on the project - and ways to provide input - can be found online at community-organizations.org.