Much-needed help for small cities may be on the way.
Last week, bills were introduced at the Minnesota Legislature that would boost the state's Local Government Aid program by $30.5 million.
Granted, it's not a huge increase for a program that will distribute more than $534 million this year but it's at least moving the needle in the right direction.
One of the chief authors was Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, who represents District 12B that includes a big chunk of Douglas County. Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne was the other chief author.
They both deserve a "thumbs up" for recognizing the plight of small cities that are doing their best to provide local residents with essential services while keeping local property taxes down.
A good sign: The legislation - SF 3082/HF 3493 - is receiving bipartisan support in both the House and Senate and a wide mix of rural, suburban and urban cities are co-authors of the legislation.
Local Government Aid is a vital source of funding for small cities. Alexandria is certified to receive about $1.5 million in aid in this year. For comparison purchases, that's about 25 percent of the city's total tax levy of $6.72 million.
Other cities in Douglas County also rely heavily on Local Government Aid. Here are their amounts: Brandon - $106,045, Carlos - $82,296, Evansville - $160,137, Garfield - $50,757, Kensington - $63,727, Millerville - $10,227, Miltona - $60,710, Nelson - $28,950 and Osakis - $458,501.
If last week's legislation is approved, all these local cities will likely see modest increases in aid, helping them make their bottom line.
Cities had to deal with cuts in Local Government Aid in the mid-2000s. Fortunately, small increases in recent years are starting to make up for those cuts but the program still receives less funding than it did in 2002.
Meanwhile, small cities face the challenges of increased costs in employee health premiums, construction materials and replacing aging infrastructure, all while keeping property taxes in check.
Imagine if you had to cover bill increases with a paycheck that's less than it was 16 years ago. That's the kind of situation cities are in.
Nearly 90 percent of Minnesota cities receive Local Government Aid, according to the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
"The average Minnesotan might not know anything about LGA, but it is absolutely vital to keeping our cities strong and providing a good quality of life for our residents," said Dave Smiglewski, mayor of Granite Falls and president the coalition. "Every time you drive down a plowed street, call emergency services or visit a city park, there is a good chance you are experiencing the benefits of LGA. It is the unsung hero of Greater Minnesota communities."
Lawmakers have been vocal about the need to pass a tax bill in order to deal with issues that have sprung up due to the recent federal tax overhaul, according to the coalition. Since changes to LGA funding are typically addressed in the tax bill, Smiglewski said this focus on the state's tax situation provides an opportunity to pass an LGA increase this session.
"Our communities have waited long enough. Now that the economy is strong and Minnesota is on the right track, it is time to restore LGA funding," Smiglewski said. "As our legislators debate tax changes and plans for the budget surplus, we are counting on them to make sure LGA is a major part of the conversation."
Residents can do their part by contacting their legislators and telling them to make LGA a priority this session. It's good for taxpayers, its good for cities and it's good for the state's future.