National Night Off?

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May 12, 2003 // UPDATED 10:50 am - April 30, 2007
By: Bob Gilbert
Bob Gilbert

Will budget cuts doom Minneapolis\' popular crime-prevention event?

City budget cuts are threatening National Night Out, which for 20 years has organized Minneapolis block clubs to fight crime.

Two city positions that helped organize the event have been eliminated, and a $6 million public works department cut will also hamper efforts.

At an April 28 City Council Ways and Means committee meeting, City Clerk Steve Ristuben and Community Crime Prevention/SAFE Operations Manager John Baumann proposed seven alternative plans for the event - none of which committee members found acceptable.

\"We are just beginning to understand how [the layoffs of city employees] will tear at the social fabric of Minneapolis,\" said Baumann. \"National Night Out is one of the most important things the city does as it relates to crime prevention, because it is an easy way for people to get together with their neighbors and renew the idea of block clubs.

\"A lot of groups like the symbolic gesture of blocking the street off and reclaiming it. People have really taken to the idea, and it has become a great tradition.\"

The national event started in Philadelphia in the 1980s. Its sponsors ranked Minneapolis first in the nation among big cities for the quality of its NNO programs and participation levels in 1998, 2001 and 2002.

In Ward 13 (far southwest Minneapolis) there were 201 neighborhood events, Ward 10 (east of Lake Calhoun) hosted 61, while Ward 7 (Cedar Lake to Downtown) had 43.

The Council is scrambling to find a way to maintain the sense of community NNO fosters without the funds necessary to coordinate it.

City finance officials estimated that it cost $57,941 to run 860 simultaneous NNO events last year. It cost nearly $9,000 to coordinate block events, plus $27,000 in overtime for public works employees to deliver and pick up the barricades that close off city streets for the block parties. Last year, every wooden barricade the city owned was used.

Also, the police CCP/SAFE units that were a centerpiece of organizing NNO have been more than halved, losing 35 of 67 positions.

Committee chair Barb Johnson (4th Ward) said, \"We have to rethink the whole idea of National Night Out.\"

Doing it on the cheap

Johnson acknowledged NNO \"is a wonderful event - it is astounding when you see how many people are out, block to block, spending the evening with their neighbors, and focusing on the good things about their city.\"

However, she said, \"I don\'t know where the money will come from.\"

The most draconian among Baumann\'s and Ristuben\'s seven proposals would totally eliminate NNO for 2003. Other options included limiting block events to 15 per ward per year, allowing neighborhoods to close their own streets, and/or moving all block events from the street to front yards.

None of the options satisfied committee members.

Councilmember Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) did not like the 15-per-ward limit because her constituents hosted 83 NNO events last year. City Attorney Mike Norton was concerned about letting individuals erect and take down barricades because any injury might make the city financially liable, and it violates state law.

According to Baumann, there are over 1000 active block clubs in the city, and they are important in reducing crime because they foster communication between neighbors and give them a sense of ownership in their communities. A variety of community activities have emerged, including street dances, karaoke, progressive dessert parties, softball games, volleyball nets across the street and children\'s events. NNO events have been held at parks, recreation centers and churches.

Downtown impact

Downtown may be less susceptible to NNO cuts because it has many public spaces that don\'t need to be blocked off.

As a member of the Minneapolis Downtown Neighborhood Association, Dee Cotton has been organizing NNO for eight years. A resident of the Rivergate Apartments, 2nd Avenue South and 2nd Street South, she is near many other apartment buildings, and over the past few years the event has had over 600 people participating. Last year, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife spoke to the gathering.

Budget cuts will not interfere with Cotton\'s event. \"We have never had a problem getting the resources we needed to get ourNational Night Out going,\" she said.

Sue Jahn is the NNO chair for the North Loop neighborhood. She said she received no help from the city in past years but instead raised over $3,000 in cash to pay for the event and also solicited $8,000 in food donations, 150 gift certificates from theaters and restaurants and enlisted the services of a professional chef to cook the food. The proximity of many tall towers meant Jahn could leaflet 7,000 apartments without walking for miles.

Currently, the only available public funds for the event are in councilmember budgets. Baumann said NNO\'s workload would have to be redistributed among council staff, or perhaps an intern will be hired to handle the paperwork required to coordinate the event.

Johnson said one alternative to costly or liability-inducing barricade delivery and pick-up is to let neighbors block the streets with their city-supplied 90-gallon garbage carts.

Ristuben and Baumann were asked to revise their plans and report back in mid May. Any decision regarding NNO will have to made in time for the June 16th meeting of the NNO Central Committee, which plans the city-wide event and coordinates activities with block club leaders.