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Quit ignoring overlooked rural Minnesota, says cities coalition

Minnesota legislators should ignore the rural-led Trump earthquake at their peril, says the Coalition of Greater Minnesota cities.

As new and returning lawmakers convene in St. Paul for the first week of the 2017 legislative session, city leaders from Greater Minnesota are urging them to heed the messages that rural voters sent when they cast their ballots in November.

"One major theme that came out of the election is that voters in rural Minnesota — and other rural areas throughout the country — feel left behind," said Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, during a conference call Thursday.

"Residents in Greater Minnesota want strong communities and opportunities for their families and businesses. They are sick of having their needs swept under the rug; they want to be part of the narrative."

That means keeping Minnesota cities strong through the Local Government Aid program, which transfers state dollars to city government.

The coalition is pushing for a $45.5 million increase in LGA, which would bring the program back to its 2002 funding level.

Gov. Dayton has proposed a $20 million increase in his budget.

For Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson, who serves as president of the CGMC, being "part of the narrative" means the Legislature must finally tackle — and pass — legislation that addresses the needs of their communities.

"With a GOP-led House and Senate and a DFL governor, we have no illusions that it will be easy to pass legislation this year," Carlson said. "That is why we came up with a fair and reasonable list of priorities that will go a long way to help Greater Minnesota and which we believe will be greeted with strong bipartisan support."

LGA is at the top of the list. With the Legislature's failure to pass a tax bill two years in a row, LGA funding has been kept stagnant while cities' costs continue to rise.

"LGA means many different things to Greater Minnesota cities," Carlson said. "It means being able to afford the basic services our residents expect, like police and fire protection, sidewalks and well-maintained streets. It enables us to provide the kind of quality of life that our residents want and deserve with amenities like parks, libraries and swimming pools. And it plays a critical role in keeping local property taxes in check."

The Coalition also wants lawmakers to pass some form of transportation funding this year, an issue that has proven to be the source of much controversy at the Legislature in recent years.

"Realistically, we know that passing a comprehensive transportation package this year is a tall order," said Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski.

"We would still like to see a large-scale investment in transportation, but at the very least we think our lawmakers can reach an agreement to pass some much-needed funding for city streets and the Corridors of Commerce program."

The Coalition wants $369 million for Corridors of Commerce, which aims to reduce bottlenecks and barriers to freight on the state's highways.

It is also asking the Legislature for $50 million in funding to help cities repair their crumbling streets, an amount that would be divided equally between cities under 5,000 in population (which currently receive no state assistance for street funding) and those over 5,000.

The Coalition also has another holdover from 2017 on its list of priorities: the bonding bill. Specifically, the CGMC is seeking $167 million in bonding dollars for grant and loan programs that help cities pay for upgrades or repairs to their water treatment facilities. Gov. Dayton included this funding in his bonding proposal, which he unveiled yesterday.

"Like LGA and safe streets, clean water is a quality of life issue," said Morris City Manager Blaine Hill, whose is among several Greater Minnesota cities — including Detroit Lakes — that are facing multi-million-dollar costs to build or upgrade their drinking or wastewater plants to meet new regulations and replace outdated infrastructure.

"Clean water is a fundamental need in any community, but the infrastructure costs are extremely high and unaffordable," Hill continued. "The House, Senate and Governor all supported including funding for clean water infrastructure in the bonding bill last session, and we hope that support amounts to actual dollars this year. We can't afford to wait any longer."

Now that the legislative session has begun, Carlson and the other city officials are hopeful that the Legislature will listen to the concerns expressed by residents in Greater Minnesota and finally take action on the key issues that have gone unaddressed for far too long.

"The 2017 legislative session will be a test as to which state leaders have truly heard the messages sent from Greater Minnesota," Carlson said. "Action on LGA, transportation, bonding and other important issues will show that the Governor and legislators really understand the needs of rural businesses and residents."

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