In defense of artistic drinking fountains

On several occasions, Governor Pawlenty has made false statements that were critical of Minneapolis and Mayor Rybak’s fiscal discipline. At a time when the State budget is again in chaos, Governor Pawlenty should not be giving financial advice, especially when that advice is based on misinformation. Minneapolis’ fiscal prudence stands up against the State’s any day.

In particular, Gov. Pawlenty has commented on Minneapolis’ plan to build public drinking fountains that are designed by artists. I’d like to assert a little bit of truth about these public art drinking fountains.

First of all, the drinking fountains in question are funded with dedicated revenue streams that are completely separate from the City’s General Fund and have nothing to do with the amount of local government aid (LGA) the City gets from the State. Here’s how the ten fountains are funded:

  • Each year, Minneapolis dedicates 1% of its capital bonding budget (around $250,000) to public art. The capitol budget is used for public infrastructure (buildings, streets, etc.) and has nothing to do with LGA, which goes into the City’s General Fund to pay for things like police officers and fire fighters. Each year, the Minneapolis Arts Commission recommends to City leadership how they think those funds should be spent. 2008 was Minneapolis’ 150th birthday and Mayor Rybak suggested that the Commission focus the public art dollars onto one, unified project celebrating our “city of waters” instead of dividing the money into various disconnected projects. The Commission agreed and approved the Mayor’s idea of functional, practical, public art drinking fountains.
  • In order for the drinking fountains to be functional, they must be connected to the City’s water supply. Therefore, $250,000 (50% of the total cost) for the fountains also comes from a dedicated Water Fund. The source of this Fund is a water fee that is paid for by property owners (residential and business) and can only be used for things related to our water supply. The size and purpose of the City’s Water Fund has nothing to do with LGA or the City’s General fund.

Even if the City cut all funding for these drinking fountains and cut all funding for all public art, the LGA cuts the Governor has proposed would have the exact same impact on the city. None of the funds for these fountains can be used for higher priorities like police officers, snow plowing, or emergency response. The State also has a capital bonding budget that is separate from other budgets, so presumably Gov. Pawlenty understands the difference between these funds. Why Gov. Pawlenty continues to point to this as an example of something Minneapolis could cut to compensate for lost LGA is a mystery to me.

Secondly, it is important to remember that funding for public art is completely and totally appropriate and Minneapolis is hardly the only level of government involved in this effort. The arts are a significant contributor to our region’s economy and art is funded by city, county, metro, state, and federal levels of government. The $250,000 in funds the City of Minneapolis spends each year on public art is a tiny sum, given the important role the arts play in our community.

By comparison, the State of MN spends about $10.2 Million every year on art through the State Arts Board and Regional Arts Councils, and has done this for decades. I’m pretty sure that I or anyone could go through that $10 million and find some project I didn’t like or that I thought Gov. Pawlenty shouldn’t be funding. The fact of the matter is, public funding for the arts not only leverages significant private dollars, but also contributes to our economy and quality of life. The overwhelming decision by Minnesota voters in 2008 to constitutionally dedicate state funding for the arts is a clear testament to the solid public support for publicly funded art.

Attacks from Gov. Pawlenty and others on these Minneapolis public art drinking fountains are not only hypocritical, but have nothing to do with the issues at hand. These attacks are a diversion from the fact that Minnesota’s budget has not had the same long term fiscal stewardship as Minneapolis has had. For too long, Governor Pawlenty has used short term budget fixes and avoided making fiscally responsible choices. This year’s State fiscal crisis, like the one that happened in 2003, and one we can probably expect a few years from now, could have been partly avoided if the Governor adopted some of the long term fiscal management that has helped us restore fiscal stability to the City of Minneapolis. Instead of attacking Mayor Rybak and Minneapolis, perhaps Gov. Pawlenty could learn something about how balanced budgets are really managed.

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2 Responses

  1. As a taxpayer who pays state taxes in friendly Fridley (and will watch those dollars go to LGA to flow from my community to Minneapolis’ and others), I really have to take some issue with the above statements.

    Perhaps Mr. Hanson and Mayor Rybak should look to comments made by Hennepin County Commissioner Johnson before they continue on their whining about their artsy fountains being paid on the public dime. Commissioner Johnson makes two points: 1) while it is true the $250,000 from the water fund is likely truly committed to water issues, is there really no better way to spend that money than on artsy fountains? I seem to remember not so long ago reading about disparate needs for the Minneapolis sewer system – which would seem to be a “water related issue”, 2) the comment about the bonding budget and, esentially, “it’s a dedicated pot” argument is simply not true. There is no reason the City Council and Mayor could not simply decide to decrease the capital bonding budget and increase the general budget to take care of those pesky things such as police and fire protection instead of fountains. The only reason that hasn’t happened is the Council and Mayor have chosen not to make those changes and instead beg for money through LGA (which, by the way, half the communities in MN do not receive at all).

    Finally, while it is probably true the state spends around $10 million on art, that doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate expense, especially given the current financial climate. The argument that “…overwhelming decision by Minnesota voters in 2008 to constitutionally dedicate state funding for the arts…” is a clever deception. Yes, it passed and likely in part because of support for publicly funded art, but also by means of either voters not fully understanding what they were voting “yes” to (though, in fairness, that is not the fault of the City of Minneapolis, Mayor Rybak, or Mr. Hanson) but also because many in outstate MN voted yes as a compromise to get funding for sportsmen related projects (such as parks, hunting, etc) and not the arts. Indeed, the “Legacy Amendment” likely only passed because the Legislature put together a coalition of expenditures for the tax, not purely for arts.

    In the end, funding for artsy water fountains is simply not justified through LGA, which is asking people outside Minneapolis to pay for Minneapolis’ follies. If the Council and Mayor want these fountains so badly, there is no reason they could not increase local taxes to pay for it – and then answer to their constituents for tax increases versus hiding behind LGA.

  2. I’m as opposed to public arts funding as the next person, but considering that all of the money is going into these drinking fountains (which aren’t really a bad idea in principle, although I don’t see the point of making them pretty), it’s a much better expenditure than, for example, dedicated graffiti walls or genitalia-related performance art. Still, given the recently announced cuts to the police force, I do have to agree with the above commenter who says the money would be best transferred from the capital budget to the general budget.

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