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Minneapolis budget hearings tackle financial issues big and small

Don’t confuse Minneapolis Council Member Betsy Hodges’ soft voice and nice manners with that of someone going gentle on budget issues.

Don’t confuse Minneapolis Council Member Betsy Hodges’ soft voice and nice manners with that of someone going gentle on budget issues. The voice might be soft, but the questions are tough, and during Monday’s session, she wasn’t getting the answers she sought.

Fire Chief Alex Jackson had been asked to explain his department’s 2011 overtime use, and it wasn’t his first time before the Ways and Means Budget Committee.

The department’s PowerPoint presentation showed all the stats: the number of injuries and long-term illnesses, a month-by-month and day-by-day outline of those calling in sick. The numbers showed a lot of sickness on weekends and during the summer.

“Startling that so many people get sick on the weekends,” said Hodges, discovering more sickness on the weekend of fishing opener and, later, during a golf tournament. She seemed perplexed, too, that many of those filling in for sick colleagues were fire captains, who make a lot more money than firefighters, who could have been called in to work instead.

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The chief explained that he must move people around or bring in people to work above grade to staff everything that needs to be staffed.

The explanation: Not good enough.

Hodges suggested he could use firefighters, instead of captains, to “help the budget.”  She didn’t use the words “save money.” It was polite on both sides.

Today, the Ways and Means Budget Committee shifts gears to other topics as it continues work on the city’s 2012 budget.  These hearings have been going on since September, when Mayor R.T. Rybak presented his zero-increase budget.

Throughout the process, department and program heads are being asked about proposed cuts, extra money needed, innovations and changes. Pretty routine.

What’s new this year, though, is several of the topics: departments’ use of wireless, for example, and their thoughts about business they might be doing with small, minority- and women-owned companies.

So far, no final budget decisions have been made.

That changes Nov. 30, though, after citizens have received their Truth in Taxation Statements and sounded off at a 6:05 p.m. public hearing at City Hall.

Last year, people were astounded to see their property taxes rise even while their property values and incomes were dropping.

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There likely will be complaints again this year.

Even if Minneapolis, the Park Board and Hennepin County all pass zero-growth budgets — as it appears they will — there still will be increases of 2.5 to 5 percent on homes valued above $413,080, as well as on rental and commercial properties, Hodges says.

That’s because the old homestead credit is gone.

“It’s not us,” says Hodges in an interview.  She blames the Republican-controlled Legislature for eliminating $260 million in homestead credits “over the objection of the DFL.” 

That Nov. 30 meeting could mark the end of polite hearings and the beginning of tough decisions. After the public has its say, committee members will spend Dec. 6 and 7 going through the budget line by line and either making changes or accepting the mayor’s suggestions.

These sessions are long, and people get tired, but this is where much of the budget work gets done.

The process ends Dec. 14 with another public hearing, followed by a council meeting where all 13 members can amend the budget. 

“We’re not doing budgets with smoke and mirrors,” says Hodges, who thinks it will be hard this year because the temptation will be great to make decisions that are not necessarily in the best interest of the city but could soothe angry taxpayers.

“Some of these choices are heartbreaking,” she says but “we don’t want to mortgage our future.”

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Not all of the committee’s work is focused on big-picture issues, though.

It also had to deal with a cumbersome process for accepting donations of such items as cat litter or dog treats for the Minneapolis Animal Care and Control Center. It turns out that action by two committees and a vote by the full council are needed to get the job done.

 “This is government at its most silly,” said Council Member Gary Schiff when the Ways and Means Budget Committee voted to accept citizen donations of blankets, cat food, small animal feeders and other items.

Schiff said he hated to think of dog blankets locked up waiting for use while the donated goods make their way through the committee process. The procedures, however, are dictated by state law.

 “It might be silly, but state law says you have to do it,” said Council Member Elizabeth Glidden.

The committee voted to accept the donations, and if the full council approves on Friday, the supplies will be available for the animals and their human caretakers. Schiff made it clear he’d like to see a simpler method.