- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Star Tribune, Sept. 6

State help needed to fix aging infrastructure in Minnesota cities

Duluth Mayor Don Ness caught our attention with his answer to a Star Tribune reporter’s recent question about the agenda he will leave to his successor when he steps down at year’s end. “What are the challenges going forward?” she asked.

“I think the age of our infrastructure,” he said, adding, “The street infrastructure issue … was an issue that, for the long-term health of our city, we need to fix, and I haven’t done that.”

Notably, Ness’ response is an almost word-for-word echo of what the Star Tribune Editorial Board heard recently from Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges as she offered a briefing on her 2016 budget proposals. When asked what was absent from her plan that ought to be there, Hodges said a long-term plan to upgrade aging streets, sewers and related infrastructure. She doesn’t yet see a politically acceptable way to pay a bill that was pegged in 2011 at $15 million per year for the foreseeable future, just to stop further deterioration of city streets.

An editorial writer heard much the same from smaller-city mayors at July’s annual meeting of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. “There isn’t any bigger issue” for Minnesota’s small- and midsize cities than the worsening condition of the state’s more than 22,000 miles of city streets and the cost of keeping up with changing water quality standards, said coalition legislative lobbyist Tim Flaherty.

It stands to reason: Many Minnesota municipalities developed about the same time 125 years ago and established water systems and arterial streets not long thereafter. That infrastructure is aging apace, too, and its maintenance was deferred in many places during the tight-money years that began with state aid cuts in 2002.

Crumbling streets and substandard water systems may be local responsibilities, but they are pervasive and costly enough to warrant state government’s attention and assistance. Establishing just how pervasive is a project nearing completion in the office of State Auditor Rebecca Otto. Funded by a grant from the University of Minnesota, the auditor’s office is preparing a one-stop inventory of Minnesota’s city-based infrastructure - streets, bridges, drinking water, sanitary and storm sewers, municipal utilities.

By next year, Otto aims to offer local and state officials an accessible, map-based overview of Minnesota’s municipal infrastructure, including its age and condition. Her goal is to encourage timely maintenance that can extend infrastructure’s useful life span and to alert lawmakers about trouble spots.

“A lot of cities don’t have an adequate tax base or population base to get at this problem. We are at risk of having crises pop up,” Otto said. “I want to get us out of the dark about this. We can tweak our policies now if we can see what’s coming.”

Cities are already looking to the state for help. They’ll ask the 2016 Legislature for a bonding bill ample enough to enlarge the Public Facilities Authority, which offers low-interest loans for wastewater improvement projects.

For their streets, cities seek the establishment of a dependable, dedicated fund to be distributed via a needs-based formula. They want special consideration given to cities with populations of fewer than 5,000, which are ineligible for a share of gas tax proceeds. One possible funding source: a $10 surcharge on license-tab renewals. Another: a quarter-cent sales-tax option in small cities or the dedication of an existing tax.

The 2015 Legislature responded with just $12.5 million for small-city street improvements. Flaherty called that “a drop in the bucket.” We’d call it a down payment on what needs to be a long-term financing plan. For decades, Minnesotans have demonstrated the wisdom of pooling their resources via state government to keep municipal services healthy and affordable throughout the state. The looming problem of aging municipal infrastructure should not be an exception to that pattern.


St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sept. 5

Soccer in the middle of everything

No matter how St. Paul’s bid for a professional soccer stadium plays out, the quest and conversation are important for the capital city.

In its efforts to close a deal, St. Paul has made a compelling case for its site, the former Metro Transit “bus barn” location near Snelling and University avenues.

The area would get the “image change” it needs, Mayor Chris Coleman told us, and the site would spur more good-for-St. Paul development. Evidence exists down the Green Line around CHS Field in a vibrant Lowertown.

On game nights, nearby bars and restaurants are “just filling up with people” who then walk a few blocks to the ballpark, said St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer. “We know we can create the same thing at Midway.”

It’s all about location. Lay out a map of the entire Twin Cities and find the middle, Kramer said. You’re in the Midway.

For Major League Soccer, there’s the opportunity to build a stadium for “an incredibly fast-growing sport in the middle of the Twin Cities,” he said, one that’s accessible “whether you live in Maple Grove or Cottage Grove.”

Take that central location and add the advantage of transportation access, with the Green Line, I-94 and Snelling Avenue bus rapid-transit all nearby.

It’s also clear that soccer leaders are “building a sport for the future,” Kramer said, one that’s on the uptick, especially with a young, diverse group of fans.

When it comes to building that base, St. Paul’s compelling right-place, right-time argument includes one of the city’s most distinctive attributes: the many college campuses not far from the site. With more higher-education institutions per capita than almost any other place in the country, Kramer said, St. Paul can deliver an “age group that loves soccer.”

Too, soccer’s a world game and thus a strong fit with an increasingly diverse St. Paul and east metro.

St. Paul pursued the stadium, Coleman said, because the property has been off the tax rolls for almost 50 years, while the ownership group has said it is prepared to pay the full cost of construction.

The St. Paul City Council last month unanimously passed a resolution keeping the site exempt from property taxes, as long as the team finds private funding to pay for the entire cost of designing, constructing and operating the facility. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would support a needed change in state law.

The St. Paul Port Authority -with expertise in converting polluted “brownfields” to productive job-producing, tax-base-supporting sites - is working on behalf of the city with the Metropolitan Council, which owns the site.

When it comes to such development, the “best-use” argument is compelling, bringing the opportunity to transform idle land to drive new growth, that is, new tax-revenue-producing business growth.

“There’s just no finer site for a facility like that,” the mayor said.

Whatever happens, St. Paul has made its case with hometown pride and the evidence to support it.

When it comes to the upside for St. Paul, the proof is near CHS Field and across downtown around Xcel Energy Center.

On these sites, it’s clear that the business of sports can be good business for St. Paul.


Post-Bulletin of Rochester, Sept. 9

Kline’s decision shakes up 2016 election

John Kline’s impending retirement will go beyond changing the makeup of Minnesota’s congressional delegation.

Wheels already were in motion for 2016 to be a pivotal election year as all 201 state House and Senate seats are on the ballot. Kline’s decision not to run changes the dynamics even more as a congressional seat without an incumbent doesn’t happen very often. It’s a prize that could tempt a state legislator to give up a secure seat.

Since Kline announced he would not seek an eighth term to represent Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, well-known Republicans, such as Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa, Sen. Dave Thompson, of Lakeville and Mary Pawlenty, a former district court judge and wife of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have emerged as possible contenders. David Gerson, a engineer from South St. Paul who has twice challenged Kline for the Republican endorsement, declared his candidacy in January.

On the DFL side, Angie Craig, a former St. Jude Medical executive from Eagan, and Mary Lawrence, a Veterans Administration physician from Eagan, announced their intentions when it was assumed Kline would run for re-election. However, Kline’s retirement could attract better-known Democrats, such as Rep. Joe Atkins, of Inver Grove Heights.

The 2nd District, which extends from the southern Twin Cities suburbs to Goodhue and Wabasha counties, is considered a swing district. Even though Kline, one of the more conservative members of the U.S. House, was elected seven times, the 2nd District voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Sen. Al Franken in 2014. With a presidential race in play to generate higher voter turnout, Democrats are hopeful they can flip the 2nd District and increase their 5-3 majority in the U.S. House delegation.

Kline, 68, surprised many with his decision.

“It’s just kind of time to move on,” he said during the news conference announcing his decision against running for re-election.

Among the factors prompting him to not seek re-election is a House term-limit requirement that he give up his chairmanship of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

“I cannot continue as chairman past this Congress. That’s part of it,” he conceded.

Nevertheless, Kline emphasized he has plenty of work left to do during the remaining 16 months of his term, including the passage of a package to reform the No Child Left Behind K-12 education law, which requires all public schools receiving federal funding to administer a statewide standardized test annually to all students. If he can fashion meaningful reform of the unpopular federal law, it will be a worthy capstone to his legislative career that began after he defeated Democratic incumbent Bill Luther in 2002.

“It’s time to let someone else have a shot at it,” said Kline, who served 25 years in the Marine Corps, including time as a military aide to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. “I’ve enjoyed the fight.”

We have complimented Kline’s work many times during his seven terms, especially his leadership on veterans issues. But we’ve also taken him to task for being part of the gridlock that’s plagued Congress in recent years. Perhaps he’s enjoyed the fight too much.

Some believe Kline’s retirement will be short lived as his name has been circulated for governor or U.S. Senate in 2018. If he chooses to run, we have no doubt he’ll influence the dynamics of those elections as well.

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