Are we having fun yet? Despite budget tussles and with $20 million in cuts looming, new mayor R.T. Rybak remains cheery in a city where everybody suddenly knows his name

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March 5, 2002 // UPDATED 1:15 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Brent Killackey
Brent Killackey

Ask Mayor R.T. Rybak how he\'s enjoying his first weeks in office and he delivers a smile and this response: "I'm having as much fun as you can legally have when you have to cut $20 million from the budget."

Budgetary issues have dominated the early weeks of the Rybak administration. First, Rybak and the City Council addressed $5.2 million in cuts left over from the previous council\'s budget process in December.

Rybak now faces the challenge of convincing Gov. Ventura and state lawmakers that cutting Minneapolis\' Local Government Aids by roughly $15 million -- part of state efforts to deal with its own budgetary woes -- would devastate Minneapolis.

Additionally, Rybak faces long-term budgetary challenges brought on by a so-called \"structural imbalance\" -- city service expenses are growing dramatically faster than the revenue from taxes, fees and state aid. Finance department projections show that by 2010 the city would need to triple its property tax levy to pay for existing services and commitments - an amount that can\'t even be assessed because of state levy limits.

Rybak has promised to deliver a budget to councilmembers in August, rather than his predecessor\'s November delivery, to give plenty of time to consider options.

Targeted cuts The past mayor and council had departments share cuts equally. Rybak -- and a work team consisting of Ways and Means Chair Barb Johnson (4th Ward), Council President Paul Ostrow (1st Ward) and Barret Lane (13th Ward), who championed budget issues since being elected in 1999 -- targeted the $5.2 million in reductions that the past council left.

"I don't believe in across-the-board cuts in any area,\" Rybak said. \"I think what they basically do is let managers escape the tough work they're supposed to be doing."

The police and fire departments were largely spared, while the Civilian Review Authority and Office of Cultural Affairs were eliminated -- an alternate, less administratively expensive civilian police oversight body will be considered to replace the Civilian Review Authority.

A bump in the road

Rybak got off to a rocky start with some councilmembers for his proposal to reorganize and cut the mayor\'s office budget. His proposal eliminated his receptionist - an African-American woman - and was approved, though five of 13 councilmembers abstained and one voted against his proposal.

\"I would have probably done all of that a little differently had we done it again, but I think there will frankly have to be some reality therapy among all elected officials about how serious the budget issues are,\" Rybak said. \"I felt we needed to take leadership in cutting our budget beyond the level I was asking departments to do.

\"Ultimately we have a pretty good relationship with the council. It's sort of a new day. It's a new era and people are going to challenge every assumption.\"

At the Legislature Rybak has maintained a visible presence at the state Legislature, personally arguing for Minneapolis\' interests, including for the schools.

This year\'s city legislative priority list is shorter than the past. \"Minneapolis has gone over with too many requests and not enough priorities. We said that in the bonding bill we would have two key requests -- planetarium and empowerment zones."

\"So I've been walking over holding two fingers up and I'll keep holding fingers up, and as long as they don't give me one finger back we'll be okay."

Rybak has been speaking with DFLers and Republicans, even arranging a meeting with House Speaker Steve Sviggum (R-Kenyon).

On funding a ballpark Rybak said during the campaign that he didn't support any public money for a ballpark. Now that he's in office, he's softened his position a bit. "I still believe there should not be public money that takes from other places," Rybak said at a south Minneapolis neighborhood meeting.

He said he would consider using money that would be there only if the ballpark were there, such as parking-ramp revenues generated when the ramps would otherwise be empty. "Who agrees?," he asked the crowd. Many hands went up in the group of 60 or so people. "Who disagrees? -- Don't be afraid," he said. No one raised a hand.

About the MCDA, Planning, NRP study Rybak quickly corrects any question about the status of the merger of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, Planning Department and Neighborhood Revitalization Program. "It's probably more appropriate to use the word alignment, because I don't want to bias where we come down on that."

During his campaign, Rybak pledged to create a more powerful and efficient link between citizens and development priorities. \"That hasn't been happening because we've got the development arm moving in this direction, the Neighborhood Revitalization Program moving in that direction, zoning area over here, planning over there, and they need to be brought together,\" he said. Minneapolis-based consultants McKinsey & Company have made a pro-bono donation to assist in a study of a potential \"alignment.\" The first report on their early progress was scheduled for Feb. 21.

The role of the interim MCDA director When Steve Cramer left the MCDA, deputy director Chuck Lutz got the nod as interim executive director.

What is his role in an MCDA awaiting word on its future role? \"Keeping the trains moving,\" Rybak said. \"While this reform is going on, we need to make sure the development arm moves forward on the day-to-day work within the city. Make sure things don't fall through the cracks while looking at the larger picture.\"

On driving himself Rybak has given up his predecessor\'s use of a police officer as his personal driver, but he won't talk specifically about security matters. He has been using an experimental hybrid Toyota Prius -- half battery, half gas -- that is in the city\'s vehicle fleet for a short time. "I don't think the mayor should be driving a gas-guzzler,\" he said.

Rybak said he used to the small car to ferry some councilmembers to a neighborhood event. "We were all jammed into the back of it. It looked like a bunch of clowns at a circus in a Volkswagen. I think that's good. Citizens should see this is a new thing going on here. Accessible kind of government."