Cities want action on aid, infrastructure in 2017 session

MARSHALL — Rural voters sent a strong message to Minnesota legislators in November’s elections. Now, it will be up to lawmakers to take action on that message, say advocates for cities in Greater Minnesota.

“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. Peterson was one of a group of CGMC members, including area city officials, who discussed the 2017 legislative session in a Thursday conference call.

“There was really a lot of rejection of business as usual,” said CGMC lobbyist and former Minnesota legislator Marty Seifert. In Minnesota in the past couple of years, “business as usual” included a lack of follow-through on important legislation, like passing tax or transportation bills.

Alexandria Mayor and CGMC President Sara Carlson said community members in her area are now expressing optimism that their needs won’t be ignored by legislators. There’s an expectation that legislators will work to get things done, she said.

That will mean taking on issues that effect basic services and quality of life in rural communities, CGMC members said. Peterson and other speakers on the conference call outlined some of the coalition’s key priorities for 2017. They include increases in Local Government Aid, investment in transportation, and state bonding dollars to help support infrastructure for clean water.

Peterson said Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed tax bill, which was unveiled on Thursday, showed some positive signs concerning Local Government Aid. The proposed bill includes a $20 million increase in base LGA funding, Peterson said. But while the CGMC appreciated that Dayton recognized the importance of LGA for cities to provide essential services, Peterson said, the group’s goal is to restore funding to 2002 levels.

That would mean a $45.5 million increase in LGA — something that the CGMC has been advocating for the past two years.

“We’re counting on the Legislature to get us there,” Peterson said.

“LGA means many different things to Minnesota cities,” Carlson said. For small cities in greater Minnesota, aid money plays a critical role in providing services like law enforcement, fire protection and road maintenance. LGA helps keep municipal levies from going higher, added Morris City Manager Blaine Hill.

Funding for transportation infrastructure is another major focus for the CGMC in this session, speakers said.

“Transportation is an issue that somehow has continued to get skirted around,” said Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski. While a comprehensive transportation funding package may not get passed this year, Smiglewski said the coalition is seeking $369 million for the Corridors of Commerce program, as well as $50 million for city street repairs. The street funding would be split, with $25 million each going to cities with populations under 5,000, and cities with populations over 5,000.

“We feel that is something that is very doable,” Smiglewski said.

Smiglewski said the street funding would make a crucial difference for small cities in Minnesota. For example, the city of Granite Falls, with a population of less than 5,000, doesn’t currently receive state assistance for street projects.

“The funding is entirely local,” he said.

The Corridors of Commerce program has also played a positive role in improving key highway corridors around the state, especially in addressing safety needs and removing traffic bottlenecks, Smiglewski said.

Hill said the CGMC also hopes to get legislative support for $167 million in state bond funding to help improve municipal water infrastructure. The bonding money would go to grant and loan programs to help cities update or repair their water treatment facilities. It’s a change that would make a big difference for cities like Morris, he said.

Morris is preparing for a multimillion-dollar construction project for a new water treatment plant, Hill said.

“Morris has some of the hardest water in Minnesota,” he said, and the salt from home water softeners ends up in city wastewater, in excess of new water quality standards. To help cut back on the need for softener salt, the city of Morris is seeking to pre-treat its water. But without state help, the cost of the project could be steep for taxpayers.

Carlson said CGMC members “don’t have illusions” that getting measures like LGA increases passed will be easy. There is potential for conflict between Dayton and a Republican-led House of Representatives and Senate, she said. But, she said, “We also have bipartisan support for LGA in both the House and the Senate.”

Peterson said the ability to get key legislation passed in the 2017 session will depend on the willpower shown by rural legislators.

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