Fees sting like bees when budgets get cut

Hiking taxes isn’t enough; cash-strapped governments add surcharges for services

State aid to Minneapolis is drying up. The city has capped property tax increases. Even core services like police and fire are taking significant cuts.

It means one thing: New and increased user fees.

It has started this year. Signs are that the trend will increase.

City police and fire departments’ 2003 budgets just took a $9.8 million cut, or 7 percent. Firefighters Local 82 President Tom Thornberg suggested new public safety charges — from charging a false-alarm fee, to lobbying for a quarter-percent city sales tax.

The city Public Works Department’s 2003 budget took a $6.1 million cut, or 16 percent. Klara Fabry, Public Works director, has floated the idea of a citywide utility maintenance fee — billing property owners for street and bridge maintenance, similar to how the city bills for garbage and recycling pickup.

Fabry may propose the new charges for 2004, when further state-aid cuts are expected.

This year, the parks and libraries have increased fees in a small way — not for new services, but to help make up deficits.

For the first time, the Minneapolis Library Board will charge a late fee on children’s books: a nickel a day. It also increased the fees on overdue adult books from 25 cents a day to 30 cents a day.

The fines are expected to bring in $75,000 to help offset the projected $2.1 million loss in state aid.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is setting up roughly 400 parking meters in regional parks this year, including Chain of Lakes parking lots, said Don Siggelkow, assistant superintendent for administration.

The new meters are expected to bring in $125,000 a year — one way the city parks can get out-of-town visitors to help pay for park upkeep, he said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has recommended eliminating "O&M" money — state aid to help pay regional parks’ operating and maintenance costs, Siggelkow said. The Minneapolis Park Board gets $1.1 million from O&M funding.

The state money recognized that non-residents used the regional parks, such as the Chain of Lakes, Siggelkow said.

"What else do you do? Charge admission to the parks?" he asked. "I don’t know how else [besides parking meters] you capture money from people who come to visit from outside the city."

Only 10 to 20 percent of the parking-lot spaces will have meters, Siggelkow said. The rest of the spaces are reserved for people who buy the $27 annual Park Patron pass. Those who don’t buy the passes need to use the meters. He estimated the meters would cost 75 cents an hour.

The Park Board is also increasing fees for adult sports teams, from $120 per team to $135 per team. For the first time, it will also charge a $5-per-kid fee to the approximately 9,000 youth who play on Park Board-sponsored teams. In 2002, the largest enrollment sports were baseball (2,356); basketball (1,990); soccer (1,397); and football (1,282).

Youth have traditionally paid a fee to park athletic councils, but this is the first time a youth sports fee will go directly into the park’s general fund to help pay for league administration.

New sports fees will raise $16,000 from adult teams and $45,500 from youth sports.

The parks, libraries and city budget planners all anticipate further state aid cuts in 2004.

The Park Board has scheduled a series of neighborhood town hall meetings to talk about either cutting services or increasing fees in 2004, Siggelkow said.

"It hasn’t been the park board’s philosophy to have user fees," he said. "With property tax levy limitations and cuts in state funding, it is about the only alternative you have — either that or eliminate the programs. There could be a lot more fees coming out of those sessions."

The park meetings in the Southwest area are Monday, April 28, Whittier Neighborhood Center, 2600 Grand Ave. S., and May 1, Lynnhurst Community Center, 1345 W. Minnehaha Pkwy. The meetings run 6:30-8:30 p.m.