Even more than in most places, local governments in Minnesota rely heavily on the state as a source of revenue. Since state aid has been on the decline, not surprisingly there's been lots of arguing among cities over dollars. Sometimes local governments that should have been allies have been working at cross purposes.
Mark Voxland, the mayor of Moorhead, decided greater communication could provide a remedy. As president of the League of Minnesota Cities this past year, Voxland created an exchange program called "Walking a Mile," in which city officials swap visits with peers elsewhere, attending council meetings and parades or inspecting wastewater plants. About 50 officials have paired off so far, and the program has been an unexpected hit.
Other municipal leagues also are trying to foster discussion among their members outside the normal run of conferences and meetings. The Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, for example, has on its staff three former city officials who have spent the past year roaming the state to share tips with newly elected officials. The Mississippi Municipal League pairs newbies with experienced mayors for a yearlong mentoring relationship.
That program has drawn interest from Alaska to Maryland, but the Minnesota exchanges appear to be the most ambitious so far. In fact, the approach is already being imitated by school districts in the state and legislators are taking a look as well.
"We noticed discussions at the state level were pitting rural versus urban communities in funding priorities," says Les Heitke, the mayor of Willmar, a city of about 19,000 in west-central Minnesota. "The overall positive impact of the program is that it's helped Minnesotans recognize that there's a lot of common ground between urban and rural communities."
Heitke and Paul Ostrow, the president of the Minneapolis city council, were able to borrow ideas from each other to cope with common concerns such as historic preservation and adapting to more diverse constituencies. Willmar's turkey processing plants are attracting large numbers of immigrants. As a result of the exchange, Willmar's local access station is now running programs produced by Minneapolis' Somali TV station.
"If you compare Willmar to the city of Minneapolis, you might think the similarities would be minimal," Ostrow says. "But in Willmar, as in northeast Minneapolis, a lot of new immigrants are helping to revitalize the main commercial area."
The league program has fostered greater understanding of what the line items in competing budgets actually mean. Everyone, it turns out, is providing the same basic services--fire, police, EMS, libraries, sewers--even though the funding streams are very different. This may seem obvious, but participants say that understanding the end result has lessened the bickering about distant cities receiving money that not everyone qualifies for.
City officials are taking that newfound understanding and turning it into a new approach to lobbying the legislature. Small towns are now pushing for funds for urban programs, and suburban mayors are now cheerleaders for forms of aid that they don't get. That kind of teamwork can pay big dividends; anyone who has tried to sway legislators understands that you're a more effective advocate when you don't appear to be arguing in your own self-interest.
A greater sense of understanding and common purpose probably won't end all the municipal infighting in Minnesota, but the program certainly has led to some useful information-swapping. As part of his exchange with suburban Plymouth Mayor Judy Johnson, the state league's new president, Voxland came along for a camping trip Johnson sponsored to promote awareness of homelessness.
Johnson had never camped before, but Voxland set her straight about some of the demands of winter camping, including good ground insulation. It was advice that came just in time. "The first night wasn't too bad, but the second night a storm blew in and the wind was pretty fierce," Johnson recalls. "We had about eight inches of snow when we woke up."