The Daily Planet’s New Normal Project is a series of news stories and community conversations devoted to identifying community priorities as we face serious economic challenges. Every month we’ll tackle a different topic, including neighborhoods, the state budget, education, health care, public services, immigrant communities, the environment, work and inequality. You’re invited to join the conversation, either online (by commenting on articles like this one) or by participating in a community conversation (see the list of this month’s conversations at the end of this story.)
The Challenge: In a time of budget deficits and decreasing resources, how can we best promote the economic vitality and livability of our neighborhoods?
Is the best solution to:
A: Learn to do more with less?
B: Raise property taxes?
C: Cut property taxes, and focus on basic services?
D: A different approach (please share your ideas).
Scroll down to read background information on this issue, and some of the arguments for each of these proposed solutions.
Background: Neighborhoods face tough decisions as budget deficits and decreasing resources threaten funding for neighborhood organizations and for public services in general. Additional challenges come from an economy that has left many empty storefronts and unemployed workers, with businesses and individuals struggling to find new ways to cope. With neighborhood-based organizations experiencing growing need for their services, alongside diminished revenue from strained resources, communities throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul are feeling the impact.
The loss of NRP (Neighborhood Revitalization Program) funds is currently one of the greatest challenges faced by Minneapolis neighborhoods. [For TCDP coverage of the battles over NRP, click here.]
The politics of funding neighborhood-based organizations is something that Armando Camacho and Lisa Lane at Neighborhood House, on St. Paul’s West Side, are very familiar with. Camacho, the nonprofit’s president, and Lane, its vice president of resource development, say that smaller nonprofit social service providers are struggling in this new environment. Mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships are taking place, more than they have in the past.
The state has cut Local Government Assistance in recent years. Local government bodies-cities, counties, park boards, school districts-have raised property taxes or struggled to hold the line. Local budgets have been cut and people have been laid off. Funding for neighborhood organizations in Minneapolis and St. Paul has declined.
In an op/ed published in the Star Tribune, Minneapolis City Councilmember Betsy Hodges wrote, “In Minneapolis, for example, the city and its independent boards have cut more than 1,000 positions in the last 10 years. For every dollar cut in state redistribution, it has levied back only 66 cents.”
The case for doing more with less – Neighborhood organizations should reorganize resources to be more efficient, collaborate more with other groups, rely more on volunteers.
Several people interviewed said they have witnessed an increase in community participation in their neighborhoods in the past few years.
Tough times are “forcing many people, organizations, and systems to rethink the way they function, and in some cases to do it better,” says Russ Stark, the St. Paul city councilmember whose ward includes neighborhoods as socioeconomically diverse as Hamline Midway and St. Anthony Park.
Rethinking and repositioning: That’s what Armando Camacho and Lisa Lane have done at Neighborhood House, a nonprofit on St. Paul’s West Side, which provides a food shelf, adult education, HIV and AIDS prevention, and assistance to immigrant populations. Demand for these services has increased, yet Neighborhood House faced a budget gap not long ago. Donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals dried up, so Camacho and his staff reexamined their approach. How they talk about their work, form relationships, and distinguish themselves from other nonprofits has changed. Now they strive to ensure that donors form an “emotional relationship” with Neighborhood House. As a result, it’s not just surviving the recession; it’s making strides in its mission to provide a “hand up,” not a “handout,” for those in poverty.
The case for raising property taxes – Local government should raise property taxes to make up budget shortfalls, when necessary, to support neighborhood organizations.
Neighborhood-based organizations are confronting a host of challenges. There’s growing need for their services, but less revenue and strained resources. Painful adjustments must be made in this harsh, new environment.
Sheldon Mains says that nonprofits like Seward Neighborhood Group find themselves depending less on paid staff, more on volunteers-difficult, Mains says, because fewer people have time to offer. Neighborhood organizations are also forced to ask for donations more than they have in the past, a challenge when individuals are financially strapped and fearful, and simultaneously receiving more requests to help fund worthy causes.
Kris Nelson, who directs the Neighborhood Partnerships for Community Research Program at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban & Regional Affairs (CURA), expresses shock over Minneapolis Mayor Rybak’s proposal to take NRP funding away from neighborhoods as a way to lessen property tax increases. He says that analysis done by the Humphrey Institute shows that the neighborhoods losing funds, including those in the near north, near south and Longfellow areas, are the ones that are most in need, and that the amount of savings in property taxes, per individual, is minimal. This, he says, shows who has clout at City Hall.
Photographer Wing Young Huie voices concern about the greater degrees of social disconnection, disenfranchisement, and polarization that he sees all around him. The poor, those most vulnerable to cuts in services, are experiencing the New Normal’s harshest effects; on that, everyone interviewed agreed.
The case for cutting property taxes and services – Government funding should be directed to basic services, property taxes should be cut, which will strengthen neighborhood base.
Writing in E-Democracy Forum, Chris Ingram makes the case for lower property taxes:
In the twenty five years I have lived in the same house in Minneapolis my property taxes have risen 660%. The value of the property has risen 400%. My income has risen 80%. To me the math is simple taxes and this citys(and others) ability to spend rises faster than our incomes do. We are already paying much more than we should be. We simply cannot afford to offer the wonderful benefits and pretend this will go away. Blame who you want to, protect whats important but in the end spending on all gov’t levels is completely out of control. … Make gov’t smaller.
It’s basically the same argument made, at a state level, by Republicans in the state senate: no new taxes. Instead, cut government spending. In a letter to Governor Dayton on February 24, they said: “All across Minnesota, our families and job providers are working to restructure their balance sheets and adjust to increasingly modest budgets. So many have been impacted by cutbacks, downsizing, unemployment and underemployment, and have adjusted their spending.”
Questions: What do you think?
We want to hear your thoughts, whether you’re a neighbor, community organizer, local business owner, or elected official. We will report conversations in the Daily Planet for the general public and policy makers. Post your comments below, or join one of our community conversations. Come meet neighbors, get inspired, make decisions, and exchange ideas.
Community conversations are scheduled for:
Hamline Midway Coalition
March 22, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
1564 Lafond Avenue, St. Paul
West Broadway Coalition
March 23, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
McDonalds Community Room
916 West Broadway Avenue, Minneapolis
Northeast Community Development Corporation
March 24, 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.
224 Quincy St. NE, Minneapolis
No R.S.V.P needed. For questions contact:
612-378-8888 or firstname.lastname@example.org
WSCO West Side Citizens Organization
March 29, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
127 W. Winifred Street, St. Paul
Lake Street Council
March 31, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
US Bank Lower level conference room
919 East Lake Street, Minneapolis
Host your own conversation!
Email lisa@tcdailyplanet to find out how.