No one will ever confuse R.T. Rybak with Al D’amato. But in the Minneapolis mayor’s 2009 budget proposal address delivered Thursday afternoon, one could hear political leanings that had a little in common with the man New Yorkers came to call Senator Pothole.
What’s on the mayor’s docket for 2009? Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.
A little more than a year ago, that was a word held dear only by policy wonks, engineers and the occasional reporter. But since the I-35W bridge collapse, the big “I” has come into political vogue.
Rybak said after the speech that he had been pressing for infrastructure issues prior to the bridge collapse. “It’s not all of a sudden,” Rybak told me, saying he brought up such issues in his budget address last year. But, of course, that was delivered after the bridge collapse, a cynic might note. But give Rybak credit when he says he’s been keeping an eye on such things for well over a year.
So today was the coming out party for mundane good governance issues like repairing sidewalks and painting street- and traffic-light poles.
“Details matter when you build a great city, so we need to repave the streets, fill the potholes, replace the broken traffic lights and smooth out cracks in the bike trails,” hizzoner told a full house in the City Council chambers, before adding, “But we also need big visions.”
In other words, lip service paid to gusset plates and the like in the wake of the 35W disaster notwithstanding, this kind of nuts-and-bolts stuff ain’t exactly a sexy sell to a constituency. To that end, Rybak put contextualized the new infrastructure passion and the bridge collapse itself.
“As I stood in front you last year to deliver the city budget, I said that our investment in basic city infrastructure had fallen behind,” Rybak said in his address, not quite avoiding the blame game. “Our city, our state and our nation have not invested as we must in roads, bridges and transit — and our lack of investment has serious consequences.
“I say this standing in a city recovering from a tragic bridge collapse that was not an act of God, but a failure of Man.”
A flurry of projects, an injection of money
Rybak became something of a transformed man, politically, after the bridge disaster — it’s hard to imagine R.T. version 1.0 uttering such a relevant phrase with the force he conjured Thursday. But what, exactly, does the mayor have in mind?
For starters, he’s freed up a little money in the city’s projected $1.4 billion budget, $374 million of which is proposed to go to the general fund, from which public works projects emanate.
So Rybak is touting a $27.5-million, five-year initiative called the Mayor’s Infrastructure Acceleration Program. Some $19.25 million will go toward improving streets and parkways, another $5.25 will go to traffic/street light replacement and upkeep, another additional $2.5 million will go to “park infrastructure” and $500,000 will go to gussying up bike trails.
(In fact, Rybak’s biggest laugh was when he went off script. He nearly said that $500 million would go to bike trails, then caught his own gaffe and corrected himself. “I won’t go that far,” the big bike-advocate said, laughing. “Don’t tempt me.”)
What the money means in real terms is going to be evident to voters on their very own blocks. To wit:
• Complete resurfacing of 43 miles of arterial streets and parkways.
• Seal coating to prevent cracks and potholes of some 26 miles of roads and parkways.
• Replacement of some 900 traffic and street lights that have been deemed “in structurally poor condition.” (Phrase sound familiar?)
• The repainting of 3,800 light poles.
It might not quite be Extreme Makeover: Minneapolis, but as far as these thing go, it’s a relatively ambitious undertaking.
Rybak’s fiscal legacy
And one that’s long overdue. For all the fair or unfair criticisms Rybak has accrued over the years — he’s a lightweight, he’s an obsequious salesmen, he’s tone deaf on some minority issues, he’s an overly sensitive micromanager — one aspect of his tenure as mayor holds true: He has been a successful budget hawk.
This was borne out of necessity: He and a wave of new council members inherited a budget mess when they took office in 2002, and for a couple years, things only got worse, mostly due to matters out of city leadership’s hands.
“While the decisions in this year’s budget are difficult, there are nothing compared with what we faced in 2002 and 2003,” Rybak said Wednesday, recalling those dark days and citing a post-9/11 recession and federal and state budget cuts that hit cities. “Back then the city’s soaring debt was draining the money we needed for basic services like police and fire and road repair.”
During those years, in fact, the politically fashionable term to throw around was “public safety,” but even cops and firefighters were struggling with weakened budgets.
“We tackled these financial challenges head on,” Rybak said, sounding triumphant. “We laid out a five-year financial plan that imposed tough fiscal discipline. Everyone had to give something, and I have to admit there were days when it seemed no one was happy. We had to be tough managers, and deliver a lot of bad news. We asked employees to limit their pay increases and we asked city residents for more in property taxes. We all shared the sacrifice.”
And this is all true. Some council members past and present, like Barrett Lane and Barb Johnson, played a huge role in righting the ship in those days, as did the city’s CFO, the calm and experienced Pat Born. But the fiscal turnaround is and likely will be Rybak’s most important accomplishment and legacy.
Best. Budget. Speech. Ever?
Rybak has delivered seven official budget addresses, plus three extras when budget recalibrating was especially crucial. Certainly no one will confuse Rybak’s oratory skills with Obama’s, or even Humphrey’s, but how did today’s measure up?
“Definitely the strongest budget yet,” said council member Gary Schiff, remarking on the nature of the rhetoric. “It’s directed at policy decisions that have been at an impasse.”
Schiff has never been afraid to criticize Rybak, but today he was behind the mayor all the way. “Pothole complaints have skyrocketed,” Schiff noted, proving his ear was pressed to the constituency’s ground. “The bridge has become a symbol of projects ignored.”
Of course, all this infrastructure fervor has to be approved by the full council, and it’s a big budget. R.T. being R.T., the speech was all over the map, with money going to all sorts of programs and departments old and new. But to hear Schiff tell it, there won’t be too many sticking points for the council on this budget.
But let the games begin: The council’s Ways and Means Committee will start parsing this thing out before a full council vote comes in December.