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For small Minnesota cities, road aid is little help

ST. PAUL – Minnesota lawmakers met last spring with big plans to fix the state's roads and bridges. But with huge differences between Democrats and Republicans about how to pay for the work, almost nothing got passed.

Almost nothing, that is, except several million dollars for Minnesota's smallest cities.

One of the few significant spending changes approved in the bare-bones transportation budget was $12.5 million for road work in Minnesota cities below 5,000 people. Those cities, unlike larger cities, don't get regular state aid for roads. Even as one of the rare winners in this year's transportation stalemate, though, small cities say their needs go far beyond that amount.

"We certainly appreciate any money we can get for our cities, but the $12.5 million, it's just barely a drop in the bucket for what we need," said Jill Sletten, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Small Cities.

How can $12.5 million be a drop in the bucket? Because that pot of money is divided between 707 small cities, for an average amount per city around $17,000.

'Doesn't even come close'

"We appreciate the funds, but $30,000 to $40,000 will basically pay for the blacktop of one city block, and the city of Benson has 26 miles of roadway," said Rob Wolfington, city manager of Benson in west-central Minnesota.

The western Twin Cities suburb of Long Lake is getting $23,813. Its city administrator Scott Weske also said the money is nice but not sufficient.

"Ultimately $23,000 doesn't even come close to meeting our needs," Weske said. Long Lake is currently working on a million-dollar road project, far bigger than its state contribution.

"The $23,000 should be somewhere around $230,000 if it is going to make an impact," Weske said.

Lawmakers in both parties don't disagree. Both the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party plan and the Republican Party plan proposed giving small cities more than $12.5 million.

"It's important that the state find a way to share in some of the efforts with small cities," said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis and the chair of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee. The $12.5 million is "more of a symbolic gesture. I was happy to support (it), of course."

This spring, Dibble backed a plan from the Minnesota Association of Small Cities that would have raised vehicle title renewal fees by $10, creating an annual revenue stream for small cities around $57 million. The Republican plan proposed spending around $25 million per year for small cities.

That bipartisan agreement was a big reason why small cities got some money — if not very much — in the final budget when so many other transportation needs got pushed into the future.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing and the chair of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, said he's proud of the $12.5 million, even though small cities say they need more.

"I understand the initial reaction, some of the reaction that it's not enough," he said. "But you can ask just about any program there in the state and they'll say it's not enough."

Even more than more money, small cities say what they really need is consistent, ongoing money.

Nancy Malecha, the city administrator/clerk for Pequot Lakes near Brainerd, said her city's $45,889 will help, but "it would help a lot if it came in annually."

"It has to be long-term," Sletten said. "This Band-Aid help is not really going to get us as a state where we need to be."

Big competition for money

The problem for small cities? Counties and large cities also say they desperately need more money to deal with their own road needs, and the Department of Transportation says state highways need more funding, too. With any potential pool of money limited, any money that goes to small cities isn't available for those other types of roads.

But Kelly and Dibble, who are negotiating on a grand transportation package they hope to pass next year, say more money for small cities will be a part of any deal that passes.

"I fully intend to have this as (part of) our total transportation package that we finalize here" next year, Kelly said.

The Department of Transportation divided the $12.5 million among the 707 small cities based on a formula that took into account each city's population and miles of roadway. The largest amount was $62,145, which went to 10 cities. Halma, a town of 61 people in far northwestern Minnesota, got $5,086.

Even these small amounts did make a big difference in some cities. Mike Robertson, city administrator of Ramsey County suburb North Oaks, called its $62,145 a "lifesaver" because it will pay for a sidewalk so students at Chippewa Middle School don't walk in the street when coming and going.

"We have been talking about beginning this project for years, and this money allowed the project to happen," Robertson said.