Notes from Norm: Step One- Oversight

News that House Republicans in Minnesota have created a subcommittee to provide oversight of the Metropolitan Council is a great step in the right direction.

According to the Star Tribune, “The new Subcommittee on Metropolitan Council Accountability and Transparency will be chaired by Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines. Last October, Runbeck called the council an ‘unelected, unaccountable board’ that’s ‘not responsible to any authority but its own.'”

As the paper further reports, “The Met Council is comprised of gubernatorial appointees from districts throughout the seven-county metro area, and which has a hand in setting transportation, land-use and wastewater policies and programs. The agency has been a major player in the construction of light rail lines, including the current push to develop the new Southwest line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. “

It is also important to know that the 2015 budget for the Metropolitan Council is nearly $1 billion.

According to the Metropolitan Council’s website, the sources of their funds come from the following sources:
– 38% – user fees, such as transit fares and wastewater treatment charges
– 50% – state, federal and local government funds
– 9% – metropolitan-wide property tax
– 3% – other sources

Roughly translated it means that 100% of funds that the Metropolitan Council collects – and spends – comes from taxpayers.

The Metropolitan Council is led by a 17 Member Board that is entirely appointed by the Governor.

For those wondering what, exactly, the Metropolitan Council with its 3,700 employees actually does with nearly $1 billion of tax dollars, one need only look to its website which says:

“The Metropolitan Council provides efficient, award-winning services in three primary areas: transit, wastewater collection and treatment, and affordable housing. The Council is also charged under state law with establishing regional growth policies, and long-range plans for transportation, aviation, water resources and regional parks.”

For $1 billion in taxpayer sponsored spending it’s good to know that the Council is winning awards for its use of the dollars given to them by hard working Minnesotans.

I began this column by saying that the decision by House Republicans to have an oversight subcommittee is a great step in the right direction.

But, it is only a step.

In the end the solution to stronger oversight with the Metropolitan Council is not, as some have suggested, to eliminate the Council.

The fact is there is a reasonable argument to be made that there are some additional levels of coordination of key public services that can be better and more efficiently addressed by an organization like the Metropolitan Council.

The City of Saint Paul has an estimated 2015 budget of around $515 million.

The City of Minneapolis has an estimated 2015 budget of about $1.2 billion.

Ramsey County’s budget for the same period is about $615 million.

Hennepin County’s budget for 2015 is roughly $1.8 billion.

Each of the four entities above have taxing authority in addition to spending authority.

So, too, does the Metropolitan Council.

But, Saint Paul, Minneapolis, Ramsey County and Hennepin County have something that the Metropolitan Council – with its nearly $1 billion budget provided by taxpayers –does not.

Outside of Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis – and the State of Minnesota – there is no other single government entity with the wide ranging power and authority of the Metropolitan Council that doesn’t have the accountability that comes with an election.

And, the importance of that reality crosses party lines – regardless of whether the Governor is a Democrat or a Republican.

Lacking any real accountability the Metropolitan Council and its governing Board is immune from the repercussions of not just unpopular policies – but bad policies and initiatives.

In the short-term, demanding greater oversight is a great first step.

But, in the long-term, demanding that representatives on the Metropolitan Council stand for election is the best final step in ensuring the greatest level of oversight and accountability to those that matter the most: The taxpayers of Minnesota.