What are the most important considerations to keep in mind when making tough choices about cities, services and funding?

Northfield "community conversations" with the League of MN Cities  Northfield "community conversations" with the League of MN Cities  Northfield "community conversations" with the League of MN Cities  Northfield "community conversations" with the League of MN Cities  Mary-Margaret Zindren, Director Communications & Strategic Initiatives, League of MN Cities
That’s the question that staff from the League of MN Cities put to a group of Northfielders last night, part of a series of "community conversations" that it’s holding around the state for its Cities, Services & Funding Initiative. Northfield City Councilor Rhonda Pownell, who sits on the League’s Board of Directors and its Board of Trustees, sent out a press release on the meeting, posted on Northfield.org.

The League’s overview:

Northfield "community conversations" with the League of MN Cities The entire approach to city services and funding needs to be rethought; a broader discussion begins NOW.

The League has launched an effort that has the potential to help shape the future of Minnesota cities—the services you provide, how those services are delivered, and how they are paid for.

Fighting for more funding for LGA, for local option sales taxes, and for more local revenue options is no longer enough. We need to shape a new way forward for Minnesota’s cities.

A similar meeting was held in St. James, MN last week and Minnesota Public Radio reporter Dave Peters wrote about it the MPR Ground Level blog in a post titled Glimmers of change emerge from St. James conversations.

League staffer Don Reeder has also posted to his Cities Matter blog about the project in a post titled City residents share ideas, concerns in series of community conversations.

Cities Services Funding
The League has set up a special statewide Community Conversations website where citizens can chime in.

See this video that introduces the project, featuring cartoonist David Gillette:


  1. David Ludescher said:

    It is an odd question. It seems to assume that cities did not or do not have a list of considerations currently in place for making choices.

    The better question is, “What are the current considerations used by cities to make choices?”. That question should be followed with, “Should those considerations change?”.

    I thought last night was a waste of time. Whatever was presented by the citizens will be filtered by the League, then sent out in a report, which cities can ignore or act upon.

    May 13, 2011
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    I’m not opposed to changing the question for our discussion here, David.

    Regardless, tho, I think the future considerations (values?) need to:

    * build our overall civic capacity (individuals, organizations, community). This current fiscal crisis will give way to other vexing problems so HOW we tackle this problem should help prepare us to better handle the next.

    * examine how cities can deliver services WITH people, not just TO/FOR people. This will require a different attitude on the part of both citizens and public servants, where too often it becomes ‘we-they.’

    May 13, 2011
  3. Griff Wigley said:

    The current issue about the removal of trees on N. Plum St. illustrates the problem of how the delivery of a city service (street reconstruction for transportation, gas, sewer, water) can degenerate into a we-they situation.

    Yes, the outcome will be better infrastructure and the city will measure that.

    But relationships between residents and the city (staff and elected officials) are now damaged; an opportunity to develop those relationships and increase civic capacity is now gone. The city is not likely to measure that, but it should.

    May 13, 2011
  4. Griff Wigley said:

    David, do you think it was a waste of time because of the way the meeting was run or because the overall design of the project and what you think the outcome is likely to be?

    May 13, 2011
  5. David Ludescher said:


    The latter. The likely outcome is a report by the League that won’t have enough specific information to benefit decision-makers in Northfield.

    May 13, 2011
  6. kiffi summa said:

    How strange! it must be that it is Friday the 13th! but I agree with David L.’s comment (#1); I mean really… how many times are we going to have the same ‘conversation’, and how meaningful is it when there are only 16 citizens there?

    Griff is also correct that the most important structural change should be how the ‘City’ interacts with the citizens. Each time there is a situation like ‘The Trees on Plum Street”, there is a call for better interaction with the residents, but it never seems to change.

    In the end the “professional staff ” wins, and the people lose their preference for how their part of their community looks, feels, ‘shades’, etc.
    What does it take to REALLY make a change in this dynamic?

    May 13, 2011
  7. David Ludescher said:


    The fundamental considerations have to be objective if we are to have any sort of reasoned debate. Terms like “quality of life”, “community good”, and “civic capacity” are too subjective to form any basis for a debate.

    The most important consideration in any government debate has to be, “How much does it cost?”. That is one side of the equation. The other side is, “What do we get for that cost?”. These are objective, quantifiable numbers that government leaders can compare.

    May 13, 2011
  8. Griff Wigley said:

    David, certainly, cost and other objective criteria are key when it gets down to designing programs and strategies. But I assumed that The Big Question was a values-based one, ie, what matters?

    May 17, 2011
  9. David Ludescher said:


    I don’t think it does us any good to talk about “what matters” for local governments. Water, sewage, streets, parks, housing, etc all matter. Unless we have objective criteria to sort out the essential from the non-essential, all we are doing is going around in a circle.

    Benefits divided by costs equals value – B/C = V. It really is that simple.

    Yes, we “value” police and fire. But, which do we get more value – a $12.0 million dollar multi-purpose facility or a $3.5 million dollar fire hall? That is how decisions have to be made. If we don’t do this kind of analysis, we end up with bike paths at $250.00 per linear foot because we “value” biking.

    May 17, 2011
  10. I think it starts with making fact sheets plainly available to everyone, to making meeting times easy for the people to make, and it also calls for a lessening of the “what can I get out of it” mentality and a greater emphasis on ‘what is good for the community as a whole” and a push to find that which is the magic third solution where everyone wins.

    May 17, 2011
  11. David Ludescher said:


    You have hit upon a number of important points. Because of human nature, in a government marketplace, the “what can I get out of it” is going to dominate the citizen discussions. Whether it is trees on Plum Street, restrictive rental ordinances, a bike path, or a business park, citizens are going to demand that government spend money or resources on them instead of on someone else because … (Northfield Is My Personal Utopia).

    Tough choices means that government has to learn when and how to say, “No.” to the citizens. No, we don’t need a big, fancy public service building or a new library. We do need water, sewage, and streets. If we get something, we are giving up something else.

    In a sense, these kind of meetings might be just as productive if they focused upon making water run uphill.

    May 18, 2011
  12. Kathie Galotti said:


    In your view, then, does your last post provide a rationale for elected officials to just ignore “the masses” and do what they want, because “the masses” are simply always selfish advocates? That can’t be what you are meaning, is it?

    May 19, 2011
  13. David Ludescher said:


    No, I am suggesting that the city governments need to establish objective criteria for valuing services, rather than asking the citizens what they value without reference to cost.

    Norman Butler pointed out at our meeting that we spent an hour and one-half without being asked to make any tough choices. Rather, we were asked what “considerations” should go into making tough choices. That kind of question yields responses like, “quality of life”, “community good”, and “civic capacity”. That doesn’t help decision-makers make good decisions. In fact, it may have the opposite effect – like it did with the bike path. Because “we value” recreation we spent lots of money on the bike path.

    May 19, 2011
  14. There is way too much emphasis on what the government can do…why can’t citizens who value bike paths and other such luxuries get together and pay for a bike path themselves and then rent it out to occasional users, or have some kind of membership to maintain it overtime? So many of these types of things are popular for a few years, then weather, change in economy or interest in some other type of outdoor recreation takes the place of the bike path.

    And honestly, I don’t know or see many people on any of these paths 8 or 9 months out of the year around here.

    May 23, 2011
  15. David Ludescher said:


    Why should citizens get together and pay for the bike path themselves if the government will build it for them at little or no cost?

    May 26, 2011
  16. Paul Zorn said:


    I’d be glad to “establish objective criteria” for public services. I’d like World Peace, too, but let’s not underestimate the difficulty (or the importance) of “establishing” either.

    One difficulty is political: If your “objective” is my “subjective”, who rules?

    Another problem is epistemological: How do we know or measure the “value” of, say, a street light as opposed to a drinking fountain, or another traffic lane on Hwy 3 as opposed to a bike path? What “objective criteria” could help us choose?

    Any suggestions?

    Your best point, IMO, is that we can and should have better cost information — numbers — in mind in weighing and advocating for services. It’s fine to ask citizens what they like in the abstract, but the conclusions tend to be foregone: more services and lower taxes.

    A more productive public exercise might ask citizens to allocate a fixed number of “chips” among a few desirable projects with known price tags. But in the end elected officials will always have to make the hard calls.

    May 26, 2011
  17. David Ludescher said:


    I don’t disagree that establishing criteria for making decisions is neither easy nor important. That is why I think framing the question as, “What are the most important considerations …?” is framing the question in the abstract, and a waste of time.

    When discussing the delivery of public services, cost should always on one side of the equation as the objective measure against which the subjective “value” or benefit is measured. While it may be difficult to get a precise number for the value of each expenditure, there are some ways to lend objectivity to the decison-making process.

    For example, when I was on the Streetscape Committee, I suggested a three part analysis to reduce the subjectivity involved:

    1. For each project, such as the bike path, put cost on one side of the equation. On the other side, put the known economic return and add in the subjective value. This number represents its internal cost.

    2. For each project, compare that project to other possible projects. 600′ feet of bike path = what comparable amount for other projects?

    3. Lastly, compare the project to other possible uses of the money by the government, i.e. textbooks, street repair etc.

    Using that approach we would have had 3 separate equations that establish the “value” of the bike path – its internal value, its comparable value to other similar projects, and its value in relation to general governmental expenditures.

    The problem that I had on the Streetscape Committee was convincing the members that OBJECTIVE criteria were IMPORTANT. The other problem that I had was convincing members that we should not act to spend money unless we had an agreement according to objective measures that we had determined. The degree of difficulty of determining objective criteria should make expenditures less likely that money is spent (because of the reduction in the degree of confidence).

    It seems to me that the most significant impediment to good decision-making is too much public input. Everyone’s pet project is important, and no one wants their taxes to go up. There is the one good thing about the no new taxes pledge. It forces discipline upon government officials.

    May 26, 2011
  18. Well David, if the materials are free and the labor is free, then cool.
    Otherwise, we the, taxpayer are paying for it and maybe paying a lot more than we know.

    For some reason, I don’t get followup comments, so sorry if I don’t see a comment q for me.

    May 26, 2011
  19. Griff Wigley said:

    Here’s the email I got about a follow-up meeting on April 19 at the NCRC:

    Thank you for participating in last summer’s League of Minnesota Cities’ Community Conversation held at the Archer House Inn in Northfield.

    As you may recall, Northfield was one of the 12 cities selected for the Conversations that were conducted as part of the League’s “Cities, Services, and Funding: Broader Thinking, Better Solutions” initiative. Four meetings with city residents were held in each of the 12 cities over the months of May through October of 2011.

    Now that we have completed the Conversations and are preparing to release a report of findings, we have scheduled return visits to each city to thank participants and to present a summary of those findings. You are invited to a special reception and presentation in Northfield on Thursday, April 19, from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Northfield Community Resource Center, 1651 Jefferson Parkway.

    Please share this invitation with friends, neighbors, and family members in the community who may also be interested in attending. Space is limited – please RSVP directly to me at dreeder@lmc.org or 651-215-4031. Thanks for your consideration. We hope to see you on Thursday evening, April 19.

    April 3, 2012

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