Rybak highlights environment, housing in State of City Address

by Michael Krieger

Though enthusiastic about the future, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak painted a sobering portrait of the city’s problems during his first State of the City Address on Tuesday.

“We have a long way to go but have a lot to celebrate,” he said.

During his speech at People Serving People – a newly constructed homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis – the mayor said the four key issues on the city’s agenda are spending, housing development, the environment and diversity.

“We have serious budget issues,” Rybak said. “They are serious and significant.”

Although the City Council resolved a $5.2 million budget deficit earlier this year, a grim economic future might await, Rybak said.

If government spending continues unabated during the next 10 years, he said, the city will have to triple property taxes to cover the shortfall.

“We will bring fiscal responsibility back to the city,” Rybak said. He said he would not sacrifice public safety or services to bring government spending under control.

With a vacancy rate among the lowest in the country, developing a successful housing strategy was central to Rybak’s campaign last year and a focal point of Tuesday’s speech.

“We are at a critical point of development in this city,” he said, adding the low-income housing crunch is getting worse and “demands immediate action.”

To facilitate development, Rybak said he will encourage collaboration among the city’s housing departments – including the Minneapolis Community Development Agency and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

Rybak said he will unveil more specific information about his housing strategies during a meeting with community members Sunday. But he said the city has already allocated $4 million to the NRP for increased housing and has provided grant funding for low-income residents.

In addition to government involvement, Rybak said the community needs to play an active role to help build vibrant neighborhoods.

“Activities of citizens will be the key to housing issues,” he said.

Rybak, who arrived at the speech in a hybrid car that uses a combination of gasoline and electricity, also said he will continue to pursue environmental issues.

“We need to recognize that air quality is the least visible but most toxic,” he said.

Ward 2 City Council member Paul Zerby said while he agreed with Rybak’s environmental position, the mayor’s housing initiative lacked emphasis on increasing employment opportunities.

“Part of the housing equation is to get some jobs out there,” said Zerby, who represents the University area.

Rybak also said he was disappointed over a lack of diversity within Minneapolis police. He said the police force’s racial composition has not changed over the past decade, which he called “absolutely unacceptable.”

Michelle Gross, a Communities United Against Police Brutality member who attended the speech, said she hopes Rybak will also take action to improve accountability.

“Police brutality is among the most serious problems this city has,” she said. “The police chief has too much power in this city, and we need civilian review to balance this power.”

The City Council recently cut in half the budget of the Civilian Review Authority, an agency intended to monitor and mediate citizen concerns regarding police activity.

“It was never given any teeth,” said Gross, who favors a review authority with increased power.

Although Rybak identified a need to revise the civilian review, he did not provide specific details.

Rybak also addressed the recent police shooting of a Somali man in Minneapolis. He said he discovered significant discord between police and Somalis during meetings after the shooting.

Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, said he was not satisfied with the mayor’s treatment of the shooting.

“He needed to be more specific about the steps to be taken to address these issues,” Jamal said.

At the end of his speech, Rybak said civic involvement is important.

“Only together can we see Minneapolis for what it can be,” he said.