Mayor calls middle class ‘canary in the coal mine'
Minneapolis is a city full of “bridges to opportunity,” Mayor R.T. Rybak said in a State of the City Address focused on building and maintaining a strong middle class.
The annual speech was held March 19 at the University of Minnesota, which Rybak lauded as a bridge to opportunity that has provided thousands of Minneapolis residents with a path to the middle class. The mayor began his speech with the story of how his father's degree from the University of Minnesota enabled him to start his own drug store and purchase a home in what was then a middle-class neighborhood in Southwest Minneapolis. Rybak said preserving a strong middle class is crucial for the city.
“It is what keeps us from being separated into a city of rich and poor like so many large cities in America today,” Rybak said.
Calling the middle class the canary in the coal mine, Rybak said Minneapolis' middle-class neighborhoods are heading in two directions. Some are losing homeowners and seeing increased crime, while others have become extremely desirable and are experiencing skyrocketing house prices. The mayor said stabilizing the city's middle-class neighborhoods requires an emphasis on public safety, affordable housing, good jobs and education.
Much of Rybak's speech focused on the progress the city has made since he delivered his State of the City Address last year, a speech held at the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis that focused on revitalizing the North Side and dedicating resources to improved public safety.
Rybak touted statistics showing signs of improved public safety, including the fact that violent crime was down 22 percent citywide by the end of the first quarter of 2007. Yet he acknowledged that there is plenty of work yet to do when it comes to public safety.
The mayor said high property taxes and mortgage foreclosures are the two greatest threats to stable, affordable housing in the city. He pledged to provide property tax relief for residents if the Minnesota Legislature restores Local Government Aid (LGA) this year.
Rybak also highlighted the 9,000 jobs he said the city added last year and emphasized the importance of developments and initiatives that create new jobs within the city. But one group in attendance found irony in the mayor's message about the importance of good jobs in building a strong middle class. A group of city employees silently protested the wage cap the mayor has supported for city employees for the past four years by standing in the back of the room holding signs that said “Everybody Doesn't Love Raymond,” a reference to the mayor's full name of Raymond Thomas Rybak.
The roughly 25 employees who protested were members of the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) locals 9 and 82, which represent city staff members and firefighters. AFSCME Local 9 President Tina Sanz said she saw an irony in the mayor's message to create a strong middle class while city employees who agreed to a wage cap four years ago are having a difficult time keeping up with the cost of inflation.
Many of the city employees working under the wage cap are middle-class residents of Minneapolis, Sanz said. If the mayor wants to build and maintain a strong middle class, he should start with city employees, she said. The city put its 2 percent wage cap policy in place in 2003. The cap limits total dollars available for salary increases to 2 percent, meaning some workers might get more than 2 percent and others less.
Although the city is currently conducting an analysis of its compensation policy, Rybak did not mention any potential changes to the wage cap in his speech.
Also conspicuously absent from Rybak's speech was any mention of a proposed merger of the Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems. Rybak has been a proponent of consolidating the two systems, a move largely prompted by the financial crisis facing the city's library system.
The speech's lack of attention on the transfer of the city's 15-library system to Hennepin County didn't escape the notice of members of the Minneapolis Public Library Board, who briefly discussed the matter at their March 21 meeting. Several Library Board members attended the State of the City Address, and Trustee Alan Hooker said Rybak warned him right before the speech that there wouldn't be much said about the proposed merger.
Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] or 436-4373.