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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

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20 August 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 34

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Mayoral Issues That
Make or Break a City

The candidates running for mayor of Minneapolis need to rethink the city's current approach to basic services, public safety, housing, corporate subsidies, graffiti, and neighborhood democracy.

by Jerome F. Winzig

Minneapolis is in the midst of its first hotly-contested mayoral race in several years. So far, the candidates have addressed a few of the issues that are crucial to the future of Minneapolis. However, there are other issues they should also address -- issues that are shared by major cities across the United States:

  • Downtown Vitality -- Contrary to much of the public discussion on this issue, the vitality of the city's downtown area doesn't depend on public subsidies or elaborate city plans. Instead, it depends on more mundane concerns like the city's policies on parking and traffic. To keep traffic flowing smoothly, Minneapolis bans parking on a large portion of its downtown streets. This excessive avoidance of congestion discourages people from coming downtown during the day. Some congestion is a healthy sign of a thriving urban center, particularly when it means that people can park inexpensively on the street throughout downtown.

  • Property Taxes -- For years, Minneapolis has raised property taxes at a rate significantly above that of inflation. This has increased government's share of our total income, is pricing some senior citizens out of their homes, and is increasing everyone's cost of housing. It also encourages the city to avoid making hard choices about which programs really deserve its support. In contrast, keeping taxes low for everyone makes more sense than providing senior citizens with special property tax breaks.

  • Basic Support Services -- Like other institutions, city governments sometimes lose their focus. When cities cut back on services like street and alley sweeping, street repair, and litter cleanup in favor of other, less-basic services, it affects urban livability.

  • Public Safety -- Like most other major cities, Minneapolis needs to provide appropriate and intensive police support without unfairly targeting people based on race. This is a difficult challenge that requires strong support for law enforcement officers while simultaneously refusing to tolerate racial profiling. One without the other is counterproductive.

  • Housing Policies -- Minneapolis needs to examine how its policies affect the availability of affordable housing. It is far cheaper and much more effective for the city to encourage private rehab efforts and to discontinue tax policies and housing codes that drive up apartment rents than it is for the city to build its own housing or provide corporate subsidies that are linked to "living-wage" provisions.

  • Graffiti -- In the last several years graffiti has become far too common and pervasive throughout the city. Allowing this to continue affects urban livability on a daily basis. Municipal courts should not treat graffiti vandalism as a trivial offense. It is not trivial when every block in our neighborhood is smeared with someone else's scribbling.

  • Ensuring Democracy -- Minneapolis is in the midst of a multi-year $200 million Neighborhood Revitalization Program. While its goals are laudable, the program is fatally flawed by a lack of democratic accountability. The neighborhood boards that dispense funds are chosen at special "elections" characterized by turnouts so low that boards can be unseated through the concerted effort of a handful of people. Decisions about how to spend large amounts of public dollars are made by very few people. Neighborhood funding decisions should be returned to where they properly belong, in the hands of Minneapolis' thirteen elected city council members.

  • Corporate Subsidies -- It is not appropriate to use public monies to provide large subsidies to private corporations to encourage redevelopment projects. If city government focused on those things that only it can do for the public good, that would do far more to encourage investment in the city than any amount of public subsidy.

  • Transit -- The level of rush-hour congestion in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is getting worse, but the metropolitan area is so decentralized that extremely expensive, fixed-rail mass transit solutions cannot fix the problem. The city needs to examine ways in which buses can be given priority on city streets. In addition, telecommuting can reduce rush hour traffic far less expensively than any mass transit solution; the city needs to encourage more companies and organizations to let their employees telecommute. Perhaps city government should lead the way.

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     Minneapolis, Minnesota

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