Rybak's budget bulge

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Or is the mayor just happy to see you?

For all the things Mayor R.T. Rybak will say about his accomplishments, it should be noted that at least one of them is true: He has managed to steer the city of Minneapolis during a time of financial crisis.

"This is the sixth balanced budget I've had to deliver in four years," Rybak crowed during Thursday's proposed-budget address, a familiar refrain of his that is, in fact, a fact. Two of those budgets came under dire circumstances: One was deigned to clean up a shortfall that the outgoing mayor and city council members left for their successors, the other came about because of cuts to state-funded Local Government Aid passed down during Governor Tim Pawlenty's first budget balancing shenanigans.

At the end of the recent legislative session, some $5.85 million of LGA was restored to Minneapolis. Finally, Rybak beamed in front of a packed council chambers, there was some wiggle room for 2006. "This is a budget I've wanted to deliver for four years," hizzoner said.

Other city leaders, however, did not share his enthusiasm.

The main point of Rybak's proposed budget for next year calls for 71 more police officers on the street, though 60 of those potential positions had been restored when the LGA dollars came through in early July. (The LGA money for 2006 will be nearly $94 million, compared to $80 million in 2005 and $82 million in 2004. In 2003, before the cuts, the city received $117 million in state aid.)

Rybak also touted that $72 million of debt had been reduced in the last four years, though he and the city council alleviated much of that burden by taking out bonds to pay it down--a rare practice that is charitably viewed as a last resort. And the budget includes a citywide property-tax increase of 8 percent, though that was pretty much a given--something laid out in a five-year budget plan earlier in Rybak's tenure.

So, the mayor expects the city to operate on $1.3 billion in revenue for 2006, a three percent increase.

Rybak went on to talk about "new standards" for fire safety, "a plan to end chronic homelessness," and "protecting Minneapolis." A PowerPoint presentation during the address claimed that "Public Safety remains our #1 priority."

It was this kind of election-season rhetoric that led many observers to dismiss the address as a campaign speech. (The mayor's office and every city council seat is up for re-election. Ten of 13 council incumbents are running again.)

"He's replacing the cops that he cut. He's replacing money that he cut," noted Gary Schiff (Ninth Ward), adding that he was actually happy about this development. "It's campaign speak. It's a response to criticisms--he's trying to undo damage that he's done to the public."

Another key component of Rybak's address was restoring some $800,000 to the city's health department budget. Natalie Johnson Lee (Fifth Ward), the council's Health and Human Services chair, said the move came as news to her. "I haven't been briefed, and he hasn't shown me what he plans to do," Johnson Lee said. "This is typical behavior of the mayor. I have to see the numbers, and we don't know any of the numbers. I expect to see the budget soon."

Ah, yes, the budget. Some council members recalled that in the past, Rybak made a show of bringing a thick stack of papers and numbers with him to the budget addresses. This year, though, all Rybak had was the PowerPoint presentation, which, frankly, didn't reveal much.

This was not lost on Gary Schiff when a motion was made for the council to receive and file the budget. "I don't have a budget in front of me," Schiff cracked. "Are we passing a PowerPoint presentation?"

The council approved acceptance of the mayor's address--a full budget was supposed to be available Friday. The council usually approves a tweaked version of the budget in the waning days of December, and weeks of haggling are a part of the process. This year, the dealmaking will likely be full of grandstanding and chest-thumping before election day in November.

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