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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Nick Coleman on Mayor Rybak and City Council Priorities


As it considers a plan to close libraries in three parts of town that lack well-heeled political clout, Minneapolis somehow has found the money for new programs designed to make politicians look good.

This is part of the prettifying of a city that continues to let basic services shrivel while raising taxes. This is known as putting lipstick on a pig.

Here are a few examples of new programs funded with new money while the $300,000 or $400,000 it would take to keep the three community libraries open cannot be found.

• $100,000 from the general fund (the first time it has happened) to a nonprofit tree-planting group. This is how tree huggers get a bad name.

• $50,000 to add an aide to the office of Mayor R.T. Rybak. This aide will specialize in education policy. Education apparently does not include keeping libraries open.

• $150,000 to hire liquor-license inspectors so bar owners can get licenses faster, while libraries that somehow stayed open during the Depression close in the middle of a city building boom. Maybe we need whiskey in the libraries.

• Hundreds of thousands of dollars more to speed city permits and hire an environmental champion to begin the Mill City's fight against global warming. Hooray! Al Gore's call to save the planet has been heard in City Hall! Too bad Al didn't say anything about saving libraries.

• And $35,000 to hire a person to sit in the City Hall corridor along 5th Street and help visitors who are lost. It is not visitors who have lost their compass. It is the politicians.

Astonishing. Appalling.

The mayor and the council are proposing a 2007 budget that includes about a million for new positions and programs (not counting public safety) while closing libraries.

Although the Library Board finally seems to be retreating in the face of public anger and today plans to discuss options aimed at keeping at least the Southeast and Webber Park libraries open, there seems to be no hope in store for the Roosevelt library, which is just as deserving as the other two. The City Council is scheduled to make a final budget decision on the three libraries at 5 p.m. on Monday.

The library mess represents a giant dereliction of duty and abdication of responsibility shared by an ineffective Library Board, a blame-shifting mayor and a City Council that has too many dim bulbs on it.

There are noble exceptions on the council side, and they have paid a price for being outspoken.

When Council Member Gary Schiff tried to shift the money to fight global warming to the libraries, he was publicly chewed out by Rybak, who practically wept tears of outrage as he accused Schiff of ignoring Al Gore's commandments. And Council Member Diane Hofstede, a former president and long-time member of the Library Board, was slapped down when she moved to postpone new (non-public safety) city hires for six months.

That delay would have saved the city half a million dollars, more than enough to keep the three jeopardized libraries open.

"Closing libraries will be a scar on the heart of the city," Hofstede said Tuesday. "There is a big lack of leadership in this city. How can you claim to care about families and children when you are closing neighborhood libraries?"

Schiff is more emphatic: "Taxes are going up, and services are being cut," he said. "We're not covering the basics. Our priorities are awry."

Hofstede and Schiff are among the stalwart few still fighting for the libraries. That decision will come Monday, when the council takes up final passage of the 2007 budget. Your vote might still make the difference.

Here are the numbers to call:

Mayor R.T. Rybak: (612) 673-2100

City Council: (612) 673-2200