Sewers, transit, regional planning and much more

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

The state agency that takes over once you flush the toilet, offers you a ride to work, and may have had a say in the size of your lawn is surely well-known to metro residents.

“Not at all,” said Met Council Member Steve Elkins of the 45-year-old Met Council.

Called one of the best ideas on governance ever to come out of Minnesota by a former chairman — called other things by irate city councils — the 3,600-employee strong Met Council casts a long shadow in the seven-county metro area.

The agency, comprised of three separate operating divisions — transportation, environmental services and community development — oversees 600 miles of regional sewer lines, collecting wastewater from 106 metro communities, two million residents.

Some 250 million gallons of dirty water are treated daily at seven regional waste water treatment plants operated by the council.

Each weekday, Metro Transit, operated by the Met Council, sees 256,000 riders board its fleet of buses and trains. To move this mass of commuters takes a fleet of 879 buses, patrolling 123 routes across the metro.

To keep the fleet moving, Metro Transit employs nearly 1,400 bus drivers, their buses cared for by some 480 mechanics.

All told, Metro Transit bus drivers, mechanics, transit cops, supervisors and clerical workers total more than 2,500 employees — the bulk of the Met Council workforce.

In the area of community development, 94 metro communities participate in the Metropolitan Livable Communities Act (LCA). Under the program, cities agree to provide affordable housing in order to vie for development grants.

City of Andover Mayor Mike Gamache, whose city, unlike 13 other cities in Anoka County, does not participate in the program, said Livable Communities has been a point of discussion with the council.

“To my mind, it’s been more of a political thing,” Gamache said of the city council’s refusal to join Livable Communities.

Gamache, spokesman for the North Metro Mayors Association, an association of mayors from 17 north metro cities, indicated that dealings with the Met Council can be contentious.

For instance, proposed extensions of the  Metropolitan Urban Service Area (MUSA) line boundaries, the line denoting the area in which the council provides regional amenities such as sewer, is welcomed by some, others fearing a loss of local control.

“I don’t see that happening,” said Gamache.

Still, the Met Council, regardless whether a Republican or Democratic governor is in power — governors appoint the 17-member council — just upsets some people.

“They look at it differently from different (government) bodies,” said Gamache.

The Met Council isn’t a steamroller, he indicated.

“They listen to us,” said Gamache.

East Bethel Mayor Richard Lawrence also suggested a workable co-existence.

“I think the council and city staff have a good working relationship,” he said.

One affordable housing advocate views the stars aligning at the Met Council.

“I think looking forward it’s promising,” said Executive Director Chip Halbach of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, a coalition of organizations focused on homelessness and affordable housing.

While some critics view the council as backing off affordable housing, Halbach views the federal government beginning in the late 1980s as stepping away from regional planning.

And this had an impact on affordable housing.

He views the Obama administration and Dayton administration as aligning to renew the affordable housing agenda.

Halbach lists a series of steps the council should take to foster affordable housing — the number of affordable apartments in the metro, apartments around $650 per month, fell by half over a recent five year period to about 10,000 units, he said.

Halbach looks to the council to combat undeserved, negative images of affordable housing, fuel for the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) mentality.

He wants the council to ensure, mandate, if necessary, that fair housing policies are being honored and that funding for affordable housing be readily available.

The council needs to make affordable housing a regional priority.

“That’s where the Met Council can have a lot of significance,”  said Halbach.

Advocates look to spreading affordable housing across the metro as a means of preventing concentrations of poverty — dilution as the solution, said former Pawlenty Met Council Chairman Peter Bell, speaking on Minnesota Public Radio shortly before leaving office.

But Bell questions whether affordable housing can really correct deep-seated family issues, such as of out-of-wedlock births — 60 percent for African-Americans, he cited — that’s linked to poverty.

Elwyn Tinklenberg, Ventura administration Department of Transportation (MnDOT) commissioner and former Blaine mayor, said the Met Council currently is pursuing a “constrained” vision in terms of transportation.

That is, the council is focused within the 694/494 beltway rather than looking to suburbs beyond.

“I understand the reason for that,” said Tinklenberg, pointing to uncertain federal transportation funding.

“But I think there’s a huge problem going forward,” he said.

Yes, there has been an uptick in growth in the inner cities, but the suburbs are still expected to absorb most of the growth, Tinklenberg explained.

Tinklenberg laughed when asked whether MnDOT and the Met Council walked lockstep on transportation issues. While former Met Council Chairman Ted Mondale and he worked together well, there’s a natural tension, explained Tinklenberg.

That’s because the transportation department must consider the needs of the entire state, not just the metro, he said.

Bell, the longest-serving Met Council chair, suggested transit advocates might view the eight years of the Met Council under his watch as “the Golden Age of Transit.”

But Tinklenberg, while crediting the recent Met Council with keeping the transit ball rolling, argued others earlier set it into motion.

Mondale, now executive director of the Minnesota Sports Facility Authority, while saying metro transit was doing “pretty good,” like Tinklenberg lamented the lack of long-term transportation funding.

“It’s a real problem,” said Mondale.

“I think there should be a regional fund,” he said.

Instead, a “Herculean” fight takes place every year over scant transportation dollars, explained Mondale.

Speaking of the Met Council’s role, Mondale styled it an “extremely important” government entity, one that has saved billions of dollars by regionally addressing transportation, sewer, and other infrastructure needs.

Other metropolitan areas across the county look with envy at the Met Council, he said.

Once a regional decision is made, the means of implementing it in Minnesota exists with the Met Council.

“That’s a huge advantage,” said Mondale.

There’s always “friction” between the council, cities and counties, and judging whether the council usurps local control is subjective, explained Mondale.

But Mondale takes as a kind of de facto endorsement, he said, that no serious attempt has been made by local government officials — people with considerable influence at the State Capitol — to markedly alter or dismember the Met Council.

Mondale, though thinking it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, like Bell, indicated that adding additional counties to the seven-county metro region makes sense.

The seven counties within Met Council jurisdiction are Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott and Washington counties.

“We’re really living in a 13-county economy,” Mondale said.

For a Met Council chair to be successful, they need the active support of the governor — he had that with former Gov. Jesse Ventura, said Mondale.

“I think (Met Council Chairwoman) Susan Haigh has that,” Mondale said of support from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

The Met Council current annual budget is about $778 million.

About 39 percent of the council operating budget is state funding, with wastewater treatment charges making up about 22 percent of the revenue.

In addition to transportation, wastewater, transit, the council, through its community development division rent assistance program, provides 6,700 Section 8 vouches and the Family Affordable Housing Program rents 150 housing units owned by the council to low-income families.

The council also works with counties and local cities in maintaining some 55,000 acres of park land in the metro.