Firefighting, NRP, sustainable development and city finances are all key issues that could decide the Sept. 13 primary
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin says Minneapolis crime is spiraling out of control and faults Mayor R.T. Rybak for reducing police staff and creating the crisis. As mayor, McLaughlin says he would systematically add 50 cops a year for three years.
Rybak says he has helped guide the city through difficult financial times, including significant state and federal aid cuts and inherited debt from the last administration. Calling McLaughlin a public safety “demagogue,” Rybak said his rival is making wild promises to hire more cops and make other city improvements with no plan to pay for them — a return to the bad old days of city borrowing that the mayor has reversed.
Green Party candidate Farheen Hakeem says jobs, not cops, should be the city’s top priority. She opposed Rybak’s proposed 2006 budget, which proposes using a recent state-aid bump to hire 60 more police, preferring to spend money on other job and housing goals.
Rybak, McLaughlin and Hakeem are the leading candidates in a field of 12 in the Sept. 13 primary. Two will make the Nov. 8 general election; the leading vote-getter will get a big political boost.
The election is about more than cops. It includes exchanges about everything from the future of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program and community development to the city’s role in supporting schools.
The two DFLers use different frames to shape how voters should view the election.
Rybak frames it as a referendum on the “new” Minneapolis versus the “old” Minneapolis. He touts his success working with the Council to create a five-year budget and clean up the city’s financial mess. He emphasizes his advocacy for I-35W bus rapid transit, the Riverside coal plant’s planned conversion, and the revitalization of the old Sears building at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue.
He says McLaughlin, a career politician, would return to the city to the days of reckless spending.
“The old guard wants to cling back onto power and go back to an old way of doing things that put this city on the wrong course,” he said, adding McLaughlin was “all complaints and no solutions.”
McLaughlin frames the race as style versus substance. He touts his work as a state legislator and county commissioner, delivering on light-rail transit and opening a vision for a vast transit network, including a streetcar line on the Midtown Greenway, the Southwest Corridor running through the Kenilworth Trail and the Central Corridor to St. Paul.
He points to his leadership with the Phillips Partnership, a public/private group that works to improve housing, increase safety and provide jobs for residents in the troubled Phillips neighborhood.
He says Rybak is energetic and enthusiastic civic front man but an incompetent politician who has missed opportunities.
“We need someone who is a skilled practitioner of politics,” he said, “I have Irish blood in me; politics is a noble calling.”
Hakeem, a Girl Scout Council membership coordinator and former teacher, offers a distinct alternative. Instead of building more public/private partnerships with corporations, she proposes developing more co-ops or jobs programs with the city as employer.
Rather than fight for more state and federal aid, Hakeem wants to wean the city from it, as part of her sustainable economics platform. She doesn’t want more cops, she wants them better trained to work with the city’s increasingly diverse population.
Hakeem opposes the proposed county sales tax subsidy for a new Downtown baseball park, a project Rybak and McLaughlin support. The stadium it is not a top priority, she said, but if it helps her get votes, “that is a consequence I am happy to live with.”
Cops On the Street
Violent crime is increasing, according to Minneapolis police data. For instance, for the 13 weeks between May 10 and Aug. 8, homicides (19) were up 57 percent compared to a 3-year average, rapes (121) were up 21 percent and aggravated assault (612) were up 41 percent.
The city police force peaked with 938 sworn officers in 1997, built up in part by the federally funded “Clinton cops.” Earlier this year, Minneapolis had 788 sworn officers, a drop of 150 from peak, due in large part to federal and state aid cuts. Thanks to partial state aid restoration and other budget changes, Rybak has proposed adding 71 cops to the 2006 budget.
The move restores nearly about half the badges lost since peak 1997 staffing. McLaughlin calls it too little, too late.
McLaughlin’s pledge to add 50 cops costs $3.75 million a year, and Rybak said his opponent has no plan to pay for it. McLaughlin earlier proposed merging the city’s and county’s 911 centers to save money, but, according to the mayor, “it was a bust.”
“I am running against someone who has made outlandish promises that would hurl this city back onto the financial teeter-totter that I rescued it from,” Rybak said.
McLaughlin said given the crime crisis, he would consider slowing down the rate of internal debt repayment. Referring to Rybak’s policy of paying off debt even if it means fewer cops, McLaughlin said, “The mayor is treating the people of Minneapolis like the World Bank treats some banana republic, [leaving] people in a very vulnerable spot.”
McLaughlin did not have specifics on how much he would slow down debt repayment and how many cops it would fund. “We are putting it together,” he said.
Rybak said McLaughlin could only float buying cops with slower debt repayment because his [Rybak’s] administration has been paying off the municipal credit card.
One measure of city borrowing is “internal service fund” debt. It refers to underfunding of the city’s self-insurance, technology and equipment funds, and goes back a decade.
The city could hire more officers by shifting the money from the internal services fund payments to police. Finance Director Pat Born said that at least one if not two of the bond rating services would downgrade the city’s Triple-A bond ratings if debt repayment is slowed, which would mean the city would pay higher interest rates on future borrowing.
McLaughlin said the city could also save money by using a better staffing model with less police overtime. He did not have specific dollar amounts. He said the mayor has missed legislative opportunities to save on pensions, which could have been used to fund police (see sidebar, page 13).
Hakeem said her public safety agenda did not include adding police. She supports improving antiracism training, adding bilingual officers and hiring mental health advocates to help police work with people with mental illness.
She also wants to create a more user-friendly and speedier process to deal with civilian complaints against officers, she said. She cited her personal experience trying to resolve a complaint she lodged against an officer who used inappropriate language.
People “just need to be heard. They need to feel like someone is listening to them,” she said.
Fighting over Firefighters
Earlier this year, the Council adopted minimal staffing standards: no fewer than 96 firefighters a day below battalion chief. The mayor supported it, and his proposed 2006 budget meets that standard.
McLaughlin said Rybak bungled a federal Homeland Security grant application, which offered $1.6 million over five years. The grant has not yet been awarded, and the city remains eligible after intervention from the city’s congressman, Martin Sabo.
“He has shown incredibly bad judgment and poor management of relations with the federal government and the state government,” McLaughlin said. “I am not going to do that. He has put us in a hole.”
The grant required the city to provide a $3 million match over five years. It would increase staffing to 100 firefighters per day, adding a fire truck back to the south side, Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek said.
Rybak said this year’s legislative deadlock affected the city’s ability to submit the grant. The city didn’t know if the Legislature would cut or increase local government aid. He didn’t want to commit to hire firefighters — then fire them in two years because the city lacked the money.
Rybak said the city missed the application deadline by one or two days but made it in on a technicality.
A Sabo spokeswoman said the congressman’s office helped with the application and the city’s request, referring further questions to Homeland Security.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Branda Napper said the city’s online application was 100 percent complete by the deadline, but the city had not clicked the “submit” button. Homeland Security “reached out” to applicants in that situation, she said, and the Minneapolis Fire Department “was one of the departments which we reached out to.”
Minneapolis is one of 2,986 applicants, Napper said. About 150 will get funded. The decision could be made in September.
Hakeem said she probably would not apply for the money, calling the politics behind Homeland Security “very questionable.” By accepting the grant, she asked: “Are we perpetuating the culture of fear?”
Further, accepting Homeland Security money could give tacit support to a program that also infringes on people’s civil liberties. “Is that tainted money something I want to touch — and I want to bring the city to be dependent on?” she asked. “It goes against my whole sustainable economics platform.”
Rybak and the current Council spent considerable energy early in the term overhauling the city’s development arm, merging the quasi-independent Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) with planning and other city departments into a single mega-agency, Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED).
The goal was to streamline the development process.
Hakeem and McLaughlin both criticize CPED, but for different reasons.
Hakeem said if elected, she would add more top management to balance what she called CPED’s corporate influence, with new key staff more actively promoting environmental issues and community input.
She wanted CPED to build more community partnerships, she said. She criticized CPED for rejecting a partnership with the African American Community Alliance, which sought exclusive development rights on 30 city-owned North-side lots. It would have provided jobs and home ownership opportunities for African American residents, she said.
(Hakeem provided a CPED letter that said the group was not a legal entity, the members didn’t have the necessary skills and experience, and the plan could violate anti-discrimination laws. She said the project could have worked.)
She said CPED could promote cooperative businesses, such as a North-side food co-op and a wind energy co-op. She suggested creating city-run health care clinics, an effort to save money on health care costs.
She had no cost estimates or specific plans or funding sources, other than to suggest a special tax on non-Minneapolis-based corporations.
“You won’t be able to get your pie in the sky if you don’t try,” she said. “They are ifs. They are all possibilities. If we don’t explore these possibilities, we are not going to get and achieve the city that we want to see.
“In order for me to be able to create the ideas and implement the ideas I want, I have to have access,” to resources, she said.
As one proposal, Hakeem said all new city buildings should be built with single stall, gender-neutral, well-lit bathrooms, part of her broader agenda to make city services accessible to the transgendered community.
McLaughlin said CPED hasn’t delivered on its promise of a one-stop shop for permits and other development functions, calling it a slogan, not reality. “Businesses tell me it is harder to deal with the city, not easier. Nonprofit developers say it is harder to deal with the city, not easier,” he said.
Rybak defended the reorganization, saying it came at a time when state tax law changes significantly reduced the money available to the city to support development, and the city needed to streamline.
The old MCDA was separate — and usually at war with the — city’s Planning Department, he said. The Health Department oversaw jobs programs. The City Coordinator’s office had the Empowerment Zone, which targets money to economically distressed areas. Public Works had transportation planning. Five different arms of government were competing for a smaller pot of money, he said.
Without CPED, the city would not have got Allina to move into the old Sears building at Chicago and Lake, he said. “It was an absurd deadline that never could have been met before,” he said.
McLaughlin has also criticized Rybak and CPED for what he says is their failure to support the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) — trying to run it from City Hall, killing local innovation.
(NRP funnels money to neighborhoods to spend on local priorities, such as housing, parks and safety. The funds come from city-subsidized developments.)
McLaughlin’s critique ranged from CPED tacking on fees he said “nickeled and dimed” neighborhood groups, to mandates that neighborhood plans conform with city goals, “a fundamental misreading of what NRP is all about,” local control, he said.
“This election is a referendum on NRP,” McLaughlin said. “If this mayor wins, you can kiss it good-bye.”
Rybak strongly disagrees the election is about NRP’s survival. “I support the program and think it has a good long-term future,” he said.
When state tax law changes undercut NRP’s funding, Rybak said he worked with Councilmember Barrret Lane (13th Ward) to find a long-term solution. He blamed criticism on long-standing tension between the city and NRP bureaucracies (NRP is multi-jurisdictional and includes parks, library and county representatives, among others) and says molehills have been elevated to mountains to help the McLaughlin campaign.
Both Rybak and McLaughlin say they support extending NRP past 2009. Neither offered specific financing plans. McLaughlin said the NRP Policy Board was studying the issue.
Hakeem is undecided on NRP’s future, calling it “a mixed bag” neighborhood to neighborhood. “We have to analyze to see if it is working or not,” she said.
Each candidate pledges to champion school issues.
What is the role of the mayor when the residents elect an independent School Board?
Rybak said his role is building a community where a kid is ready for school, has something constructive to do when school is out and has a strong career track when he/she graduates. He touts creating career centers in city high schools, creating more than 1,100 summer youth jobs through the STEP UP program and expanding Way to Grow, a school readiness program, among other efforts.
McLaughlin said the School Board is in charge of day-to-day operations and policy decisions; the mayor supports, prods and mobilizes resources. He would create a mayor’s task force on education to bring people together, similar to his work on light-rail transit, he said. He would consider asking the School Board to permit the mayor an ex-officio appointee.
“I don’t want to take over the School Board,” he said “I think having a mayoral presence there would send a powerful signal that the mayor is paying attention.”
Hakeem, a former math teacher whose job now includes leading Girl Scout troops at schools, said the mayor’s role should focus on before- and after-school programs. Her literature says she would promote antiracism, antibullying and antihomophobia training in schools. She would work with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on after-school and summer programs. She proposes using wind energy profits to increase school funding.