Last May, I wrote about the COVID-19 pandemic and that we were all in the “same storm, but different boats.”
Whether we are talking about individuals or businesses, COVID-19 has had devastating consequences on some, while much less impact on others.
While I am delighted that many things seem to be returning to normal, I fear Bloomington is minimizing the budgetary effects that will remain with us for years to come.
Last spring, the city of Bloomington was facing a multi-million-dollar budget shortfall as a result of COVID-19. The mayor appointed a Community Budget Advisory Committee last spring to make sure that budget decisions would be based on need and reflect the community’s preferences.
By October, the city’s wish list was still rather long. One of the items that the city’s creative placemaking staff was eager to spend $150,000 on was a mural and light installation on the 106th Street bridge at Interstate 35W. Councilmember Jack Baloga wisely pointed out that such a project during pandemic budget constraints would appear tone deaf. By a narrow margin (4-3) the mural was removed from the city’s budget.
Fast forward to 2021 when the city found out it will be getting $11.4 million through the Federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. At the June 14 meeting, the council was scheduled to talk about what projects it could now reconsider due to this windfall from the feds. Included in the agenda packet was a letter that Hennepin County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene had written to President Biden. Greene thanked Biden for the money that the county could spend on things like COVID-19 testing, public health, small business grants, emergency rental assistance and homeowner support.
I read through the new wish list and while some things seemed reasonable, I was frustrated that the 106th Street bridge mural was back on the list for $150,000. There was also an additional $200,000 for other fluffy, feel-good creative placemaking projects throughout the city. I guess when Uncle Sam sprinkles down money from heaven, cost concerns go out the window.
Okay, so $350,000 is a small portion of that federal gift, but how many other smaller wasteful projects will be eating up funds that could be better spent? I’m a strong believer in the “latte factor,” based upon David Bach’s popular book which postulates that people need to look at the small things they frequently spend money on, as those things add up.
When I questioned the city why the mural was back on the list, I was told the 106th Street mural/lighting installation is on the list of items being evaluated by staff for possible recommendation to the City Council, with funding by American Rescue Plan dollars. This project is billed as having the potential to contribute to our local economy, employ local artists, entrepreneurs or small businesses, help build resiliency, and contribute to a safer space for pedestrians.
How does a bridge mural in south Bloomington build resilience and contribute to the local economy? As for pedestrian safety, the lights would accommodate that, but not the mural. And it seems it would just help one artist, not other entrepreneurs and small businesses.
In the end, the council ran out of time to talk about the ARPA funds, and it was moved to the July 26 meeting.
To be clear, no decisions have been made and further reading of the federal guidelines might remove items like this entirely. On the list of items to be considered for these funds, both the mural and the citywide placemaking projects were labeled “maybe” and “risky since it does not fit into any of the categories.”
So why would our city even consider it? Just because money comes from the county or state or federal government, that does not mean the money is free. Taxpayers will ultimately be responsible for it. And money spent on wish-list projects means less money for those who truly need it.
There are many different rescue plans in the works. Let’s hope our elected representatives commit to acting responsibly and don’t just employ the “use it or lose it” plan to spend anything that comes its way.
Pam Pommer, a graduate of Lincoln Senior High School, lives in Bloomington, where she enjoys gardening and spending time with her shelties. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.