ST. PAUL - Cuts to Local Government Aid have been costly to communities in Greater Minnesota in ways many would not have necessarily expected.
In Granite Falls, city officials say it forced them to delay the purchase of a needed fire truck to the point that the city had to go out and lease one, to the tune of over $50,000. "We had no choice. We didn't have the resources to buy outright the fire truck that we needed,'' said Mayor Dave Smiglewski.
The mayor is also the president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. He was joined Thursday by colleagues from Bemidji and Little Falls at a news teleconference outlining the priorities the organization representing outstate communities will be bringing to the Legislature this year.
Local Government Aid is on the top of the list. The Legislature increased the funding level in 2017 after years of decline, and that helped make it possible for Granite Falls to purchase the truck it needed.
Bradley Peterson, executive director of the coalition, said the funding is still short of what cities need. Coalition members will be asking the Legislature for an increase of $30.5 million in LGA. That would bring overall LGA funding to $568 million, or the high-water mark of the program in 2002.
Keeping up with infrastructure needs for wastewater and water treatment, repairing city streets, and meeting a growing child care crisis are the organization's other priority issues for the upcoming session.
The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is urging a "robust'' bonding bill in hopes the Legislature will set aside $167 million in grant and loan monies to be distributed by the Public Facilities Authority. It assists cities to meet wastewater and water infrastructure needs by providing low-interest loans and grants for a portion of a project's costs.
Little Falls tripled its wastewater treatment rates due to the costs for improvements it made to its plant in recent years, according to City Administrator Jon Radermacher. It could be forced to triple those rates yet again if the state doesn't provide additional funds, he said.
Little Falls currently falls too far down the list for help due to limited funds available to the Public Facilities Authority. Yet it learned that it will need to undertake a $17 million renovation of its wastewater treatment plant to meet new phosphorus requirements, far above the $7 million to $8 million costs it had once anticipated.
Rural communities are finding it just as difficult and costly to meet the needs of repairing streets. Smiglewski said Granite Falls recently identified 27 blocks in need of major street work. The city will undertake work on six of them, or roughly one-half mile worth. It should be doing one mile worth of work annually just to keep up, he said.
This year's bill for one-half mile will come to nearly $1 million.
The state is providing $24,635 to Granite Falls for road needs as part of a special allocation the Legislature approved last year for cities under 5,000 in population.
"It is certainly appreciated, but it doesn't get us very far on a nearly million-dollar road project that is still woefully short of what we've identified as our needs,'' Smiglewski said.
The coalition will be asking the Legislature to make the special allocation for roads to cities under 5,000 a permanent one, and to fund it at $25 million a year, according to Peterson.
It will also ask the Legislature to increase the permanent funding provided cities of over 5,000 population by $25 million, he added.
Child care needs are no longer a "quiet crisis" in Greater Minnesota, according to Peterson. The coalition is asking the state to provide $1.25 million to each of the regional initiative foundations to start addressing the problem by offering child care training and other help.
Calling the crisis "acute'' in Greater Minnesota, Peterson said that a recent study found that the number of licensed, in-home child care providers in the state decreased by 30 percent from 2006 to 2016, representing a loss of almost 41,000 licensed spaces.
In Little Falls, a community of 8,800 people, Rademacher said there is a deficit of 144 licensed spots. In the surrounding zip codes, there is a deficit of 475 spaces.
"We see it as an economic development issue for us,'' Rademacher said.
He moved from his role as city administrator in Madison to Little Falls just months after the birth of his first child. He spent three months away from his wife and child until they could secure child care in Little Falls.