Public Works cuts hit Downtown

Share this:
March 31, 2003 // UPDATED 9:31 am - April 30, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

For a year, virtually no maintenance of traffic signals, streets, bridges and public plazas

Broken traffic lights won't get fixed as fast this year, potholes won't get filled as fast, and Peavey Plaza and the Loring Greenway will get less maintenance than in previous years, said the Klara Fabry, Public Works director.

Fabry has proposed nearly eliminating preventative maintenance of streets, bridges, traffic signals and city-run malls and plazas to close her department's $6.2 million 2003 budget gap.

If the money situation doesn't turn around, she may recommend a citywide utility maintenance fee -- billing property owners for street and bridge maintenance similar to how the city now charges property owners for garbage and recycling, Fabry said.

A citywide maintenance fee could be assessed on properties owned by nonprofits, charities and churches that are currently exempt from property taxes. Many such properties exist Downtown.

The city has inadequately funded street, bride and traffic control systems maintenance for years, she said. In 2003 alone, Pubic Works estimates the city will spend $7 million less than it should on street maintenance.

"This is not sustainable," Fabry said. "It will cost you a lot more to manage the asset if you are not doing any kind of preventative maintenance."

Maintenance cuts would also create safety hazards, she said.

Gone is $2.4 million to fill street cracks and seal-coat streets; $1.6 million for maintenance and repair of streetlights, signals and signs; $600,000 for upkeep of malls and plazas and $300,000 for bridge maintenance.

The Loring Greenway, which runs for Loring Park to Nicollet Mall, and Peavey Plaza at 12th Street and Nicollet Mall, will not get seasonal plantings or maintenance of planters or minor structures. The budget for repair and maintenance of lighting, sweeping and litter control will be cut by a third.

Nicollet Mall has a special service district and would not be affected by the cuts, Fabry said.

The Public Works budget shouldered the biggest percentage cut of any major agency, as the city braced for the $21 million Local Government Aids (LGA) cuts proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. In an effort to protect vital police and fire services from deeper cuts, city leaders told Public Works to take a disproportionate share -- 16 percent of its general fund revenues.

The Public Works budget could get cut $8 million more in 2004 from a combination of state aid cuts and city belt-tightening. The legislature has not yet approved Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget and the LGA cuts may not be as deep as expected.

Fabry said regardless of what happened, she would first look for increased efficiencies to save money. Depending on the state budget, she would look at other revenue sources such as the citywide utility maintenance fee. St. Paul already has one, she said.

According to a plan presented to the City Council's Ways and Means Committee, Public Works would cut 87 of its anticipated 260 seasonal workers and 61 of its 188 full-time workers. The seasonal workers fill the potholes, repaint street markings, fix traffic signals and do a lot of the preventative maintenance, Fabry said.

Fabry does not anticipate layoffs, she said, in part because fulltime workers will fill seasonal workers' jobs. Also, while the Public Works general fund budget is being cut, many department functions are supported by fee-based services: sewer, water and solid waste. The department has 1,400 positions.

Vacancies in other areas would also allow Public Works to offer jobs to those otherwise facing layoffs, Fabry said.

"Reassignment of work is already taking place," she said.

The plan was expected to go before the full City Council March 28, after the Skyway News deadline.