Guts, but little glory

A few years ago, I wrote a post to the Minneapolis-Issues email list suggesting that I would run for local office on a "Double Your Taxes" platform.

I had two motivations: to provoke a discussion about what taxes buy, not just what they cost; and to assure I would never really run for office (some opponent would surely dig up the message and torpedo my candidacy -- reducing any temptation to ruin my family life).

As it turns out, 12 of the 14 winners in last year's council and mayor races went me one better -- but there's no carrot here, only stick. Two weeks ago, they signed on to a plan that would cap the city's income from property taxes at 8 percent per year until 2010. That may sound like a nice raise, but it doesn't begin to keep up with the city's exploding pension obligations, health-care costs, loans on all our '90s building projects and paying off some internal debts racked up in that go-go decade. The result: big-time budget cuts – $20 million next year alone. The other result: in 2003 dollars, some of you will be paying triple your current property taxes in 2010.

Forget Jesse Ventura's bragging; the City Hall Dozen (not including councilmembers Dean Zimmermann, who voted against the plan, and Robert Lilligren, who was out of town but sounded grouchy about it in comments to the Journal) have more guts than any pols in the state. These elected officials -- most of whom are brand new, so they want to run for re-election -- are promising the voters less at a higher price, in the hope that when we're eight years older, the city will be better able to do great new things. That takes guts.

A few things you need to know before you look for those open houses in St. Louis Park or Edina: for most of you, your city property taxes aren't back-breakers

I live in an average-valued city home and pay about $500 a year for city, parks and library levies. If figures supplied to the Journal by city finance officials are right (see page 4), I'll be paying about $600 more in today's dollars eight years from now - or about $50 a month more on my mortgage payment. Sure, I'd rather have the money in my pocket, but at least the city is better off than it was when I bought my home in 1994.

Yes, someone's to blame, but you'll need a whole hand of fingers to point: farsighted but weak-kneed City Hall leaders who didn't know when to quit buying and subsidizing; a far-sighted but weak-kneed library board that won money for a new Central library without the funds to operate the system; a far-sighted but weak-kneed park board that worked an inside deal that bypassed the voters for needed park spending; and finally, voters who were pretty foggy about the financial implications of all this.

A fiscal shortfall's silver lining is how wonderfully it concentrates the mind. Once citizens realize what's coming - that tsunami hasn't yet hit - everything will be thrown in a new light.

Mayor Rybak deserves kudos for fiscal honesty, but his nice-to-haves - including 24-hour snow plowing and a new Twins stadium - will look laughably profligate.

There will be plenty of bleating that we can get out of this by "cutting social spending" and moving it to Hennepin County, even though social spending is a picayune percentage of city spending. At the same time, thanks to state "reforms," the property tax blast will hit the poorest hardest, as government cutbacks (such as police service, a major budget expense) inevitably hit them harder, too.

Meanwhile, the park and library boards complain that they're being screwed by City Hall; as is typical for feuding fiefdoms, they'll probably soon be dishing all kinds of dirt on each other. At least that will help citizens understand better how well our decentralized government really works -- and whether other gut-wrenching changes are needed.