Austin closely watching Mayo’s expansion planningPublished 4:23pm Saturday, March 30, 2013
The Austin City Council has some questions about Mayo Clinic’s Destination Medical Center (DMC) plan, and what effect it will have on the area.
Council members met with Rep. Jeanne Poppe and Sen. Dan Sparks, both DFL-Austin, Friday to discuss several topics, including what they knew about Mayo Clinic’s plans to expand infrastructure in Rochester over the next 20 years. Mayo officials plan to secure more than $5 billion for projects related to the medical center and are asking the state to provide $500 million for upgrades to the city. The plan could add up to 45,000 jobs, according to Mayo officials.
That could spell big changes for Austin, and residents are asking the city what to expect.
“I’ve been getting questions from many residents about this,” Council member Roger Boughton said.
Boughton said the plan would likely be a boon to Austin, but council member Judy Enright was concerned the project could drive businesses away from Austin and make more people spend money in Rochester instead of at local stores.
“People already go to Rochester to buy clothes,” she said. “I don’t want us turning into a one café, one gas station town.”
Poppe and Sparks said legislators had plenty of questions over the proposal, including how it would be paid for.
Legislators are working with Mayo officials to hammer out several details, like how soon the state would have to pay the $500 million should legislators agree to the DMC plan. Though Sparks and Poppe both said they support the idea behind the plan, their support will hinge on the project’s financial details.
“The financing piece is going to be the tricky part,” Sparks said.
Poppe advised the council to schedule an informational meeting with Mayo officials.
City council talks LGA with legislators
Minnesota’s Local Government Aid program looks like it’s here to stay, provided legislators find a way to balance the budget and raise revenue.
That was the message Poppe and Sparks gave the Austin City Council Friday during an annual meeting.
LGA is one of several financial proposals to likely be wrapped into a tax omnibus bill toward the end of the session, and Poppe told council members that bill is likely to be passed with an increase in revenue to the state.
“We’re at a point where, with a different governor, different majorities, we’re looking at trying to raise revenue instead of just cut,” she said.
Both Poppe and Sparks told council members the state legislature would likely tax high wage earners, among other sources of revenue, in order to pay for programs like the $80 needed for the latest LGA formula proposal.
“There’s not going to be any shifts, any gimmicks in this budget,” Sparks said.
The proposal simplifies the LGA formula while still keeping older city housing stock in mind. It would also take inflation into account.
Many local government officials across the state were concerned with the first LGA proposal Gov. Mark Dayton introduced earlier this year, which would temporarily boost LGA funding for a short time before decreasing aid to cities like Austin. Under the new proposal, Austin would receive steadily increasing funding over a period of years. The new proposal still calls for an extra $80 million set aside for LGA.
Poppe and Sparks also said higher education spending was a priority, and legislators are looking to invest more in education and “human capital,” according to Poppe.
Council members welcomed the assurance on LGA funding, as the city relies on LGA for almost 50 percent of its general funding each year. Austin will receive about $7.1 million this year in LGA funding.
City Administrator Jim Hurm said he hopes legislators continue to take greater Minnesota into account when looking at LGA, as the program was designed to keep smaller cities economically viable. He said Austin is able to maintain and adapt to residents’ needs based on its LGA allotment.
“This city works hard at being efficient,” he said. “We don’t just sit back and be fat and sassy because we get LGA.”
Don’t expect a decrease in property taxes anytime soon, however. Council members say an increase in LGA will help the city maintain its property tax levy, and several said they would rather the increase in funds go toward infrastructure and other projects to benefit the city, in case the state decides to freeze or lower LGA funding in the future.
Poppe and Sparks received a quick lesson from Vision 2020 organizers on the importance of broadband Internet access, as well.
Mark Nibaur, executive director of Austin Utilities, and Laura Helle, director of creative vision for Vision 2020, urged legislators to take broadband infrastructure and Internet access seriously as the state looks at municipal needs in the coming years.
“[Our] biggest goal is that perception change,” Helle said.
Helle and Nibaur told legislators broadband access is rapidly becoming an important city issue, as projects like Google Fiber bring community-wide Internet access and streamline electronic utilities issues to more areas across the U.S.
Sparks agreed easier access to the Internet is becoming a concern, enough that a state office concerning broadband access is likely to be created soon.