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For Minnesota cities and counties, the 2019 increase in state aid was long awaited

International Falls
International Falls, on the state’s northern border, will receive about $4.3 million in LGA money in 2020 – nearly a third of its annual budget of about $13.7 million.

Last winter, as the 2019 legislative session approached, advocates for Minnesota cities and counties, especially those in rural areas, hoped for an increase in the amount of financial aid local governments receive from the state to help them cover their budgets.

While cities and counties already receive millions of dollars in state aid every year, they had been looking for more for years, arguing that the amounts they were getting had not kept up with inflation or with the rising cost of public services.

This year, they had a crucial advocate in their corner: Gov. Tim Walz, the rural Democrat who won last fall’s election after running on a “One Minnesota” campaign theme that included promises to restore funding for the two aid programs dear to cities and counties: Local Government Aid (LGA) and County Program Aid (CPA).

Emboldened by Walz’s win, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, in a preview of the 2019 legislative session, put an increase of LGA funding at the very top of its priority list. The Association of Minnesota Counties included a CPA hike on its wish list, too.

They got what they’d long wanted as lawmakers and Walz agreed to provide each program with more money over the next biennium than they have received in years. A tax bill signed by Walz includes a $26 million increase in LGA and CPA funds for 2020 and another $4 million increase in 2021. That will bring the LGA expenditure for 2021 to about $565 million and the CPA expenditure to about $260 million.

In a statement issued after legislators approved the funding, Ron Johnson, a Bemidji City Council member and the current president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said he was “ecstatic,” saying that the LGA money will help cities “hire an additional firefighter or replace a beaten up old snowplow.”

A return to 2002 levels

Funding for Local Government Aid reached $565 million in 2002 before increasing for one more year and then falling off during the Great Recession. For the last several years, proponents have argued for a return to that 2002 funding level, using that figure in its press releases and position papers. Walz got on board with the idea during his campaign and told MinnPost before the session that he would seek an increase in the programs in his budget proposal.

About 90 percent of Minnesota’s cities receive some money from the LGA program, which helps many of them to pay for services that are generally covered by local property taxes. Last fall, 22 cities held referendums to raise property taxes, with 16 of those measures passing – perhaps one sign that some municipalities have been looking for ways to fill in gaps left by drops in LGA support. (More than a dozen cities also passed temporary sales tax increases, which allow them to raise a targeted sum of money over a given time, usually for specific projects).

LGA funding levels dating to 1986 can be found here. [PDF]

For some Minnesota cities, especially smaller ones in greater Minnesota, LGA provides a significant part of their budgets.

International Falls, on the state’s northern border, will receive about $4.3 million in LGA money in 2020 – nearly a third of its annual budget of about $13.7 million. That state aid is the city’s largest single source of revenue, according to City Administrator Kenneth Anderson, who called the annual LGA allotment “an essential factor in our budget.”

The city will get an increase of $153,000 in LGA money next year. While some cities use the money for specific projects, Anderson said, International Falls uses it for essentials, like paying police officers or funding the public works department.

Unlike many suburbs or regional centers in Greater Minnesota with stable populations, International Falls deals with a lot of uncertainty in preparing its annual budget, Anderson said. Tax receipts this year, for instance, are expected to decrease by $102,000 because of a change in the valuation of one major business in town. At the same time, growth in the housing sector has been modest for years. (International Falls is much smaller than it used to be; the city of 6,000 has about 2,300 fewer residents than it had 30 years ago after it merged with South International Falls).

“It’s just critical for us,” he said of the aid.

This session, International Falls also got legislative approval for a temporary sales tax increase that is expected to generate $30 million, money that the city will use to fix century-old sewers and water mains. Residents approved the measure in a referendum last fall. While the city has a relatively small population, nearly a half-million vehicles from Canada come through town each year (based on 2016 figures), many of their drivers stopping in town to spend money.

LGA has its critics, especially cities that don’t receive much, if any, money from the program. Anderson knows firsthand that LGA money can be distributed unevenly. When he worked as an administrator in Crosslake, on the prosperous Whitefish chain of lakes in Crow Wing County, the city received about $12,000 in LGA funds one year.

For International Falls, though, “it’s more than just a filler,” he said.

Increasing demand for services

Similarly, County Program Aid helps counties cover holes in their budgets.

Many county officials refer to CPA a form of property tax relief – a way of lessening the size of the levies that fund county government. In reviewing the results of the 2019 session, the Association of Minnesota Counties included the CPA funding increase under its list of “major victories.”

The year 2002 was also the magic number for CPA proponents; the $260 million that will go into the fund by 2021 is roughly equal to what counties received in CPA funding 17 years ago. CPA funding levels dating to 1999 can be found here. [PDF]

Mower County, on the southern Minnesota border, will get about $2.6 million in CPA funds in 2020 – an increase of about $255,000 from what it received this year. That’s helpful but relatively modest, considering the county has an annual budget of about $69 million, County Administrator Trish Harren said. The money will go into the county’s general fund.

“We do appreciate what the Legislature did to help counties and to at least make the effort to re-establish (CPA) aid at those 2002 levels,” she said.

Harren told MinnPost that two areas, in particular, are driving an increase in costs in Mower County: an aging population that needs health and human services and illicit drug use that has led to a “dramatic increase” in expenses to law enforcement. (Harren made the case for more state investment in CPA, as lawmakers were debating the measure, in a column she wrote for the Austin Daily Herald).

Moreover, those annual costs are difficult to predict, she said. For instance, Harren referred to an inmate in the county jail who needed $15,000 worth of medications each month – a cost borne by the county. The county also spent about $4 million last year on children who had to be placed either in foster care homes or in correctional facilities. “We’re just not getting the participation from the state that we need to help fund these additional costs that we have no control over,” she said.

Twenty years ago, Mower County received about $2.2 million in CPA money. Adjusted for inflation, that would total about $3.4 million today – far more than what the county will receive in each of the next two years, even with the increase. “(CPA) has been static for so long – or cut – that, honestly, counties like ours try not to depend on it as a source of help because we have such large budgets,” she said.

An inmate in the Mower County jail needed $15,000 worth of medications each month – a cost borne by the county.
An inmate in the Mower County jail needed $15,000 worth of medications each month – a cost borne by the county.
Like many counties, Mower County struggles to maintain its roads and to stay on top of other infrastructure repairs.

And like International Falls, Mower County increased its sales tax a few years ago, using $4.5 million of that money to fix 42 miles of roads and 10 bridges last year. It will do a similar set of fixes this year. Harren is grateful for that funding but thinks of sales tax increases as “a last resort.”

So the county looks where it can to offset costs. A production tax on a wind turbine, for instance, generates about $2.2 million per year. “We do the best we can with what we have,” Harren said.


This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 06/18/2019 - 10:30 am.

    Its too bad the rural voters don’t understand that it was Timmy Pawlenty and his Republican pals that cut LGA in the first place. He did it consistently, every year that he was governor. The other thing is that Minneapolis and St. Paul are the economic engine of the state, we’re the source of the vast majority of tax revenues the state collects. Most of these rural cities are receiving more back from the state then they are sending in. We don’t mind subsidizing our rural brethren, but I do wish they’d stop sending us politicians who bash us and block things like light rail and public transportation, things that WE need.

    • Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 06/23/2019 - 08:01 am.

      Well said-Tim Pawlenty was a destructive force in our state’s history. Our crumbling roads are his other legacy.

  2. Submitted by Don Casey on 06/18/2019 - 12:23 pm.

    Essentially, isn’t LGA and CPA just returning a portion of the taxes paid to the state by residents and businesses of those municipalities and counties? (Minus a handling fee for politicians and state accountants in St. Paul.)

    • Submitted by Dan Handke on 06/19/2019 - 07:51 am.

      No. It’s redistribution of wealth from the residents and businesses in the metro area to residents in rural MN. Without the metro area businesses/economy there would be no LGA funding.

      • Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 06/23/2019 - 08:04 am.

        Almost right but it’s a re-distribution from higher earners state-wide and I’m one rural type who doesn’t mind paying my fair share and I vote progressively, too. Yes, the metro certainly is the source for most of this aid.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/19/2019 - 07:54 am.

      Don,

      “Essentially, isn’t LGA and CPA just returning a portion of the taxes paid to the state by residents and businesses of those municipalities and counties?”

      You’re describing ALL government spending, not just LGA. However the taxes “returned” to rural MN are not proportionate, they get more money back than they send in. Two out of every three dollars they get come from Metro tax payers, this has always been a basic fiscal fact. And it’s fact rural Minnesotan’s would do well to remember, as Mr. Tobias points out, we’ve NEVER complained about rural spending, but if Rural Minnesotan’s and their Republican politicians keep attacking OUR transit spending and other needs THAT could change. Some of us have already lost the “impulse” we used to have regarding our willingness to send our money outstate, and concern for those who are attacking us is wearing thin. It’s getting a little old seeing farmers show up with their MAGA hats complaining about my “values” and choo choo’s and then expecting me to push out my tax dollars for their benefit. That’s not a sustainable politics.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/19/2019 - 07:39 am.

    Walz? Dayton always budgeted more money for LGA than Republicans would agree to. Republicans cut LGA and CPA under Pawlenty and refused to raise it for the next 15 years. Republicans even went so far as to try to pass laws making it illegal for local government to raise taxes to replace lost LGA and CPA money. Let’s give credit where credit is due… this restoration is there result of a weakened Republican strangle hold on the budget.

  4. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 06/19/2019 - 11:20 am.

    I do think the local governments should be more accountable for the money they receive.
    Putting the LGA into a general fund doesn’t have much meaning.
    How much money do you need and where is it going to be spent are reasonable questions.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/22/2019 - 11:05 am.

      Kent,

      You city budget is public information. You can get a copy or look at the budget online any time you want. You can also contact your mayor or council person if you have any questions. And there are already rules and restrictions regarding what LGA can be used for and how it can be spent.

    • Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 06/23/2019 - 08:09 am.

      They are plenty accountable in a way the metro cities’ politicians are not. When residents in a small rural city or township show up unhappy it means change. When this happens in the cities it’s a shrug of the shoulders because identity politics is what is accountable in the metro cities.

    • Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 06/23/2019 - 08:10 am.

      It has a lot of meaning: lower property taxes.

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