It is seldom in recent years that the political visions of state, county, and city have combined so clumsily as in two landmark decisions that have somehow escaped the full scrutiny of those noble, ink-stained wretches who populate what’s left of our free press in these parts. We’re speaking, of course, of Hennepin County’s tragic-comic attempts to secure the asphalt wilderness in downtown Minneapolis’ North Loop for the purpose of building a baseball stadium for Carl Pohlad and the Minnesota Twins and the puzzling city-county deal to merge the Minneapolis Public Library system with that of Hennepin County. Both experiments in visionary public policy have been conducted with less due diligence than most ordinary citizens would employ before they rent a movie.
Much has been made of the “greedy” asphalt-owners who control the parking lot the county covets. And, indeed, Bruce Lambrecht and his many partners are demanding more than county officials thought they would need to secure the land. What’s been ignored in this comedy of errors, though, is the fact that Hennepin County went to the State Legislature with a bill that not only outlined the (unlawful) sales tax required to fund the stadium but also essentially limited the location of the proposed ballpark to that piece of asphalt in the North Loop. And now Commissioner Opat and the three other boys who voted for this piece of corporate welfare are surprised that Lambrecht won’t budge on the price? What would you do if you owned the only piece of land on which the stadium could be built and knew the county had a stiff deadline to secure the parcel?
You might nudge that price up a little? Duh.
Given the controversy surrounding the funding package and the fact that Pohlad has been working for the past decade for this particular free lunch, one would think that Opat and the boys would’ve taken care to give themselves some negotiating leverage with regard to the treasured land. But no. They were so convinced of the “common good” of their plan (and perhaps Lambrecht’s connection to Commissioner Mark Stenglein) that they just figured they’d get the go-ahead from the Legislature and the asphalt owners would be happy to give up their holdings at bargain-basement prices.
The courts will eventually assign a fair price, but if that price pushes the land acquisition costs high enough, the stadium will have to scrimp elsewhere. Opat and the boys will blame Lambrecht, of course, but the onus is really on the commissioners, whose lack of common sense would be astonishing — if we hadn’t already seen it at work in the library merger.
In the case of the historic consolidation of the Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems, however, county commissioners weren’t the only ones without a clue. Mayor R.T. Rybak and city council members essentially surrendered a half-billion-dollar city asset with no guarantee that the move will improve library services. In conversations with city and county officials in recent weeks, we’ve learned that the merger was approved without a plan — no budget projections, no hard numbers of any sort — that would assure city residents that the newly consolidated library system will offer anything more than the current cash-strapped one.
What we hear from most city council members is that they had no choice but to give it up, that they’d have to close more than the three currently shuttered libraries in order to continue with the status quo. What has gone unsaid — but is stated clearly by their actions — is that the public library system’s funding difficulties simply don’t rise to the top of their agenda. You may recall that when public safety suddenly alighted on the mayor’s agenda after his re-election campaign, he and the city council found the money necessary to hire more cops. If libraries were of a similar importance, Rybak and the city hall crew would shift the budget appropriately. But, despite all the rhetoric about immigrant children and the joys of reading, city leaders simply don’t see the value of maintaining an independent library system.
And that’s fine, as far as it goes, but it is unacceptable to make such a move without assurances that the consolidation will produce a better system. Are our elected leaders simply assuming that everything’s going to turn out OK? Or are they simply happy to have passed the ball to another — less accessible — governmental body? (When was the last time you called your Hennepin County commissioner to complain about something?)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering such haphazard planning, that the merger has run into some labor strife. (It seems county library workers have a different wage and benefit package than city library workers. Duh.) And, then the governor vetoed the $4.5 million transitional funding package, putting the whole consolidation effort in limbo.
This isn’t governing. This is flinging darts blindfolded after too many lagers and hoping to hit the bullseye. Next time, fellas, just call a cab.