Written by Jeff Johnson on June 16, 2009. Posted in General

Rybak complains while spending $500,000 for artsy drinking fountains in Minneapolis

Governor Pawlenty today announced his unallotment decisions.  Among his comments was an admonition to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (who is predictably incensed by the cuts to local government aid) that he should start setting priorities for the city budget and stop funding  “$50,000 artistic drinking fountains.”

I had completely forgotten about those fountains, but amidst the cries from Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman that LGA cuts would threaten public safety and force their respective cities to cut even further into bone, I decided to refresh myself on last year’s decision by Rybak and the Minneapolis City Council to spend $500,000 on artist-designed water fountains (ten fountains at $50K each) to be placed throughout the city.

A Star Tribune story last year described this expenditure as a “continuation of the city’s ongoing public arts program, which has brought the city projects ranging from an oversized bunny sculpture at East Minnehaha Parkway and Portland Ave. S. to artist-designed manhole covers.”

In response to the controversy that ensued over the fountains last year, Rybak and others presented the familiar argument that the fountains were being funded from a dedicated pot of money that could not be spent on other priorities.  One should never, however, accept that argument at face value.

In reality, those fountains were funded from two sources.  Half the funding was from a fund apparently created by the legislature to use solely on “water issues” in Minneapolis.  I have not been able to ascertain the source of that fund, but I would not be surprised if it is partly or entirely comprised of fees on property owners’ water bills.  The other half of the funding was from bonding dollars that are spent on public works projects (and funded by property taxes).

While money from the “water fund” might be prohibited from general use, one has to wonder whether there might be higher water-related priorities in the city than artistic drinking fountains. 

Regardless of restrictions on the “water fund”, the bonding dollars could certainly be spent on other priorities.  The council and mayor could easily choose to dedicate fewer dollars to capital bonding projects and spend them instead on priorities within the general fund – priorities like police officers, for example.

I recognize this is only a small portion of the cuts Minneapolis will realize from the Governor’s unallotment.  It is, nonetheless, a prime example of local government failing to set reasonable priorities while screaming bloody murder about LGA cuts and claiming that any fat in their budgets was eliminated long ago.

By the way, I saw a comment in a story about this issue from one of the ten fountain designers in defense of these $50,000 artistic water fountains: “A drinking fountain is a modern manifestation of the ancient well, where people gathered.  They looked at each other and they said, ‘How are you today?'”

Well, then.  I guess it all makes sense to me now.

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