Child care, infrastructure are legislative priorities for Minn. cities

Greater Minnesota is a big place, but it seems like there are some concerns that communities are facing no matter where you go. Members of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities said Thursday that infrastructure needs and a child care shortage in the state are high on the list of topics Minnesotans are concerned about.

“The child care issue is interesting,” said Bradley Peterson, CGMC executive director, during a media conference call Thursday. Peterson said child care is a concern cities have voiced around the state, both as a much-needed service and as a barrier to economic growth.

Finding solutions to the child care shortage was one of several key issues the CGMC will be asking state lawmakers to address as the next legislative session starts next week. CGMC members, including coalition president and Granite Falls Mayor David Smiglewski, used the conference call to talk about the issues and how they affect communities around greater Minnesota.

“This is an interesting legislative session,” for few different reasons, Peterson said. One is that legislators made some progress last year on state bonding and increasing Local Government Aid (LGA) funding. The concern, Peterson said, is “that the Legislature will, in some ways, rest on their laurels.”

Peterson said legislators shouldn’t pass up on the opportunity to build on the progress they made in the last couple of sessions, or let partisanship and upcoming elections distract them from working.

Peterson said a tax bill will likely be a major focus during the upcoming legislative session. And with it, he said, “We need to keep moving forward” on LGA funding. He said the CGMC is advocating for an increase of $30.5 million in LGA, enough to bring aid funding back to 2002 levels.

Representatives from Minnesota cities said increased LGA funding would help their communities pay for needed equipment and operational costs. Granite Falls, like many greater Minnesota cities, has tried to cope with decreased aid by reducing costs, Smiglewski said. For example, Granite Falls put off buying new equipment like a fire truck, opting to lease a truck for a couple of years instead.

“We have a long list of other items we have put off for years,” he said, but it’s not a strategy cities can follow forever.

Ron Johnson, a Bemidji City Council member, said LGA is particularly important for Bemidji, where almost half of the property in the city is tax-exempt. Johnson said Bemidji has had to cope with LGA cuts by reducing city staff.

“We’ve tried to adjust to the cuts, but we are struggling,” Johnson said.

Child care shortages are another serious problem Minnesota cities are facing, Peterson said. The need was “especially acute” in greater Minnesota, he said.

“We are on the cusp of a real critical issue here,” said Little Falls City Administrator Jon Radermacher. “I know people who won’t take a job because they can’t find child care. Businesses want to come here or expand, but it’s hard to do that when the workforce has child care needs.”

CGMC members cited a needs assessment done by First Children’s Finance, which found that Little Falls currently needs 144 more child care placement spots. When the assessment counted adjoining ZIP codes to Little Falls, the number jumped to 475.

Radermacher said there was no “silver bullet” to solving the child care shortage. Multiple solutions will be needed. One strategy the CGMC is supporting is legislation that would give funding to Minnesota’s initiative foundations to encourage more in-home child care providers.

Funding for city infrastructure, like streets and water infrastructure, is another legislative priority for Minnesota cities, CGMC members said. The coalition is $50 million for city street funding, divided equally between cities with populations less than 5,000 and cities with populations greater than 5,000.

“One of the priorities of the bonding bill needs to be water infrastructure,” Peterson said. Many cities are faced with spending millions of dollars on upgrading aging water treatment facilities. Peterson said the CGMC is asking for $167 million in bonding for state grant and loan programs to help cities pay for water infrastructure projects.

Radermacher said Little Falls is facing a $17 million renovation of its wastewater plant in order to meet more stringent standards for phosphorus levels in its wastewater. If the project doesn’t get grant money funded through state bonding, it could triple the city’s water rates.

Smiglewski said many other cities in southern Minnesota are also facing costly updates to their water infrastructure. Some cities with hard water are having to build central water softening systems to cut down on salt in their wastewater, he said.

Marshall is among the cities that plans to update its water system to pre-soften the water. In September, city staff told the Marshall City Council that proposed upgrades to the Marshall Municipal Utilities water plant would cost around $9 million.

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