Budget hearings bring out community TV supporters

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November 21, 2011 // UPDATED 3:25 pm - December 1, 2011
By: Nick Halter
Nick Halter
As the 2012 city budget nears approval, community television supporters are fighting tooth and nail to prevent a proposed $250,000 cut to the Minnesota Telecommunication Network, which reaches 74,000 residents via cable and countless more online.

A couple dozen MTN supporters showed up at a budget hearing on Nov. 30. The hearing was in stark contrast to last year’s meeting, when City Hall was instead filled with people protesting rising property taxes.

The city has already guaranteed a zero percent tax levy increase, and complaints about property taxes were relatively few this time around. 

Because Mayor R.T. Rybak is proposing no tax increases, he was forced to propose cuts to a wide range of programs, including MTN, which supporters say provides an important voice to immigrants, youth, the poor, the GLBT community and artists. 

“It is a cultural beacon to the city, and when culture dies, barbarism ensues,” said Jose Serrano, an MTN supporter. 

MTN is broadcast on channels 16, 17 and 75 to 74,000 Comcast subscribers in Minneapolis. It aired 3,500 programs in 2010, including 230 in Somali, 32 in Chinese, 17 in Spanish and 16 in Oromo, according to MTN Executive Director Pam Colby.

City Council members will get a chance to make changes to the budget, with meetings scheduled for Dec. 5-6. The City Council is scheduled to adopt a budget on Dec. 14, following another round of public testimony at City Hall.

Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2) said after the Nov. 30 hearing that he would help to restore some of MTN’s funding, though not likely all $250,000. He said other council members would support MTN as well.

 

Rybak said he hopes to work with MTN to reduce operating costs, especially the organization’s expensive rent. MTN’s lease on space at St. Anthony Main totaled $98,400 in 2011, according to the MTN budget proposal.

 

“Cutting this much to MTN was very painful, but I want to work with MTN to save as much of the programming as we can by being more efficient with what is spent on other costs, especially with rent,” said Rybak, who mentioned City Hall or public schools as possible inexpensive relocation sites.

MTN is planning to deal with the $250,000 cut — which is 31 percent of its 2011 budget — by eliminating 4.5 full-time equivalent employees out of 10.5, giving the remaining staff a 5 percent pay cut and slashing retirement and health care contributions. 

Personnel cuts, Colby said, will lead to reduced hours for program taping, less training, increased user and membership fees and less marketing.

MTN wasn’t the only city service on the chopping block.

Rybak’s budget calls for a $1.8 million cut to the Minneapolis Police Department’s $136 million budget. It would reduce the number of sworn officers in the Police Department by 10, bringing the total down to 843. In 2008, the department employed 916 sworn officers.

The Department won’t have to lay off any officers because of future retirements, but it does plan to lay off four crime prevention specialists in an effort to reduce the number of specialists from 18 to 13.

Crime Prevention Specialists are civilians tasked with recruiting and training block clubs, compiling crime data for the community, sending out crime alerts and responding to problematic properties.

Robin Blake of the Longfellow neighborhood testified to the City Council that she was mugged in the parking lot of Target in October, and she was concerned about arsons and burglaries in the neighborhood.

“It just seems like the wrong time to cut crime prevention specialists and police, Blake said.

In total, Rybak’s budget would eliminate the equivalent of 104 city employees.

Rybak’s budget includes a hike to utility bills. This year, the typical Minneapolis household pays $77.32 a month for water, sewer and garbage. Next year, under Rybak’s budget, the same household  would pay $82.60, or $5.28 more per month. That equates to a $63 annual increase in utility bills.

Though the theme of the Nov. 30 meeting was largely distress over budget cuts, a few residents showed up to complain about property taxes.

City residents received Truth in Taxation notices in mid-November. While the city will not raise the property tax levy, Minneapolis Public Schools requested a maximum tax levy increase, but school board members have made it clear they don’t intend to raise taxes as much as originally requested.

The state Legislature in 2011 eliminated the Market Value Homestead Credit, and replaced it with the Market Value Exclusion Credit, leaving many higher value properties paying higher taxes.

Shawn Smith of the Kenwood neighborhood said his taxes have increased by 68 percent since 2006, and he cautioned the city against taking on expensive projects like renovating Peavy Plaza and Nicollet Mall and creating more parkland on the Upper Riverfront. 

“Our goal should be to return the (tax) levy to 2007 levels,” he said. “I’m asking for caution and reevaluation of pending big-ticket projects.”