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Rural cities press Legislature for action

Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson

Residents in rural Minnesota are feeling ignored by the Legislature and want action this session, according to a group of city leaders.

“One major theme that came out of the election is that voters in rural Minnesota – and other rural areas throughout the country – feel left behind,” said Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities during a media conference call Thursday. “Residents in Greater Minnesota want strong communities and opportunities for their families and businesses. They are sick of having their needs swept under the rug; they want to be part of the narrative.”

City officials like Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson, who serves as president of the coalition, said that being “part of the narrative” means the Legislature must finally tackle – and pass – legislation that addresses the needs of their communities.

Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski and Morris City Manager Blaine Hill were also part of the the conference call.

The coalition pressed the Legislature to help Greater Minnesota by focusing on three key issues: increasing local government aid; enacting a bonding bill that includes funding for water treatment plants; and passing a transportation bill to maintain streets and ease bottlenecks on highways.

“With a GOP-led House and Senate and a DFL governor, we have no illusions that it will be easy to pass legislation this year,” Carlson said. “That is why we came up with a fair and reasonable list of priorities that will go a long way to help Greater Minnesota and which we believe will be greeted with strong bipartisan support.”

Marty Seifert, a coalition lobbyist and former GOP legislator, urged the Legislature to move swiftly.

“The frying pans are piling up on the Legislature’s stove,” he said. “We want them to start cooking.”

At the top of the coalition’s list: a $45.5 million increase in government aid, which is the amount needed to bring the program back to its 2002 funding level. With the Legislature’s failure to pass a tax bill two years in a row, LGA funding has been kept stagnant while cities’ costs continue to rise, the city leaders said.

“LGA means many different things to Greater Minnesota cities,” Carlson said. “It means being able to afford the basic services our residents expect, like police and fire protection, sidewalks and well-maintained streets. It enables us to provide the kind of quality of life that our residents want and deserve with amenities like parks, libraries and swimming pools. And it plays a critical role in keeping local property taxes in check.”

The coalition is also hopeful that lawmakers will pass some form of transportation funding this year, an issue that has proven to be the source of much controversy at the Legislature in recent years.

“Realistically, we know that passing a comprehensive transportation package this year is a tall order,” Smiglewski said. “We would still like to see a large-scale investment in transportation, but at the very least we think our lawmakers can reach an agreement to pass some much-needed funding for city streets and the Corridors of Commerce program.”

The coalition is seeking $369 million for Corridors of Commerce, which aims to reduce bottlenecks and barriers to freight on the state’s highways. It’s also asking the Legislature for $50 million in funding to help cities repair their crumbling streets, an amount that would be divided equally between cities under 5,000 in population (which currently receive no state assistance for street funding) and those over 5,000.

The coalition also has another holdover from 2017 on its list of priorities: the bonding bill. The coalition is seeking $167 million in bonding dollars for grant and loan programs that help cities pay for upgrades or repairs to their water treatment facilities.

Gov. Mark Dayton included this funding in his bonding proposal, which he unveiled Wednesday.

“Like LGA and safe streets, clean water is a quality of life issue,” said Hill, whose city, Morris, is among several Greater Minnesota cities that are facing multi-million-dollar costs to build or upgrade their drinking or wastewater plants to meet new regulations and replace outdated infrastructure.

“Clean water is a fundamental need in any community, but the infrastructure costs are extremely high and unaffordable,” Hill continued. “The House, Senate and governor all supported including funding for clean water infrastructure in the bonding bill last session, and we hope that support amounts to actual dollars this year. We can’t afford to wait any longer.”

Now that the legislative session has begun, Carlson and the other city officials are hopeful that the Legislature will listen to the concerns expressed by residents in Greater Minnesota and take action.

“The 2017 legislative session will be a test as to which state leaders have truly heard the messages sent from Greater Minnesota,” Carlson said. “Action on LGA, transportation, bonding and other important issues will show that the governor and legislators really understand the needs of rural businesses and residents.”

About the coalition

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization representing 88 cities outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The coalition lobbies legislators about issues important to Greater Minnesota. Visit the CGMC online at greatermncities.org.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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