The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 24, 2009

Mankato: City merger would save $2.2 million

North Mankato official has no comment on study

By Dan Linehan

MANKATO — A combined Mankato and North Mankato would save at least $2.2 million, according to a budget analysis released Monday that renews a perennial discussion of a merger that has long been opposed by North Mankato’s government.

Click here to see the searchable report.

The owner of an average-priced Mankato home would save $73.51 per year in city taxes and a North Mankatoan would save $227.31, according to the study. It amounts to a savings of about 9 percent in property-tax supported services.

The analysis, conducted by Mankato officials, steers clear of thorny topics like the future of individual employees and a name for a merged city. But the issues that remain — especially comparisons of efficiency — are enough to make the merger a divisive and potent question.

When contacted Monday afternoon, North Mankato City Administrator Wendell Sande said he hadn’t yet read the report and would have no comment even if he had.

During a Monday night work session, Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges stressed the analysis did not aim to judge the financial superiority or leadership of either city.

“Both councils have been very good stewards,” he said.

But clear financial savings come from a merger, he said, mostly from a reduction in upper and middle management positions. A combined city would not need two finance directors, for example. Or two city managers.

While there appeared to be no representatives from the city of North Mankato attending the work session, a resident of the city urged the council to explore the issue.

“I’m not at all convinced that the residents of North Mankato feel that bringing the two cities together would be a bad thing,” said Jerry Crest, chief administrative officer at Immanuel St. Joseph’s Hospital.

He said it was “as a whole, a positive thing for the region” but said “segments” of the city want to protect the status quo.

“Now I’ve just gotten myself in trouble with a whole lot of people,” Crest said with a slight laugh.

North Mankatoans currently pay more in the city portion of property taxes than Mankato residents, according to the study.

The owner of a house valued at $165,549 in 2008 pays $605.25 in Mankato and $738.02 in North Mankato for the city portion of property taxes.

The study was conducted to explore whether a merger would save money in a time of state aid cuts and pressure on local governments to reduce spending while providing the same services, Hentges said.

Using 2008 figures, a combined city would also receive about 3 percent more in state aid, about $230,000, than the two individual cities.

For decades there has been talk of the merger question but this is the first time data have been collected to determine how much money it would save, Hentges said.

Mankato City Councilman Vance Stuehrenberg, who was a police officer in both Mankato and North Mankato, said he could see the benefits of a combined public safety department.

But “knowing the independence of the city of North Mankato very well,” he was skeptical that a merger would work.

Councilman Mark Frost said there has to be “political will on both sides of the river or nothing is gonna happen.”

Councilman Jack Considine said it’s important to be sensitive to North Mankato’s concerns. “One step at a time and we’ll go very slowly” was how he characterized merger talks.

Nothing has been decided; the analysis was discussed during a work session and no action was taken.

“It’s a starting point,” Hentges said. “It could be an ending point, but it’s a starting point.”