This guest column was written by Greg Zylka, mayor of Little Falls, Minn., and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
For city officials, that word has become a frequent part of our vocabulary these past 10 months. Simply put, the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for our communities as it continues to claim lives, businesses and livelihoods.
Now, as Minnesota lawmakers get to work crafting the next state budget, city officials are using the term “devastating” to describe something else: the impact of any potential cuts to the state’s local government aid (LGA) program.
I was pleased to see that Gov. Tim Walz’s recent budget plan protects LGA and does not impose any cuts on the program. As the Minnesota House and Senate develop their own budget proposals, I urge legislators to remember that just as cities have been on the front lines of the pandemic response, so too will they be on the front lines of the economic recovery. While LGA accounts for only approximately 2.2% of the state’s general fund budget, it is a vital component of city budgets, especially in Greater Minnesota.
Since March, anxiety about our health, jobs, children’s education, and businesses has dominated our lives. Elected officials in cities and towns across the state live with this anxiety not only for our families and ourselves, but also for our communities.
To ease some of that anxiety, cities have taken numerous proactive steps to help residents and businesses cope with the pandemic and resulting shutdowns and restrictions. Many cities have waived fees, deferred property tax collections, altered land use restrictions to accommodate socially distanced dining and other activities, and distributed federal CARES Act dollars to businesses, nonprofits and families in need.
Cities have taken these extra steps while continuing to provide the public services on which families and businesses rely, such as police and fire protection, safe streets, clean drinking water, wastewater treatment, libraries, and parks — services that will continue to be a vital part of recovery as the pandemic recedes.
In nearly 90% of cities in Minnesota, these services are supported by LGA.
Minnesota’s businesses and citizens will not be able to heal after the pandemic unless cities are able to provide a solid foundation of public services and infrastructure. Cutting LGA in response to state budget struggles would undercut economic recovery throughout Greater Minnesota and create additional setbacks that could take years to undue.
City leaders are mindful of the impact tax and spending decisions have on our residents and businesses.
As cities developed their budgets for 2021, many made difficult decisions to postpone initiatives, forgo purchases, and hold off on hiring. A fellow mayor defined his city’s 2021 budget as “bare bones,” a description that rings true for many cities across the state.
While many city leaders aim for frugality, we also know there are needs that must be met. And just as we cannot spend our way out of every problem, we recognize that failing to adequately invest in the future often does more harm than good.
As Minnesota lawmakers grapple with the state budget, I challenge them to look not only at our immediate concerns but to envision the future we want for Minnesota when the pandemic is finally over. Certainly, we all want strong, vibrant communities with thriving businesses and happy residents.
Any cuts to LGA would send that goal backward and further delay progress as our cities and the state recover from the pandemic. For Greater Minnesota cities, a cut to LGA would be devastating.