Coalition builder: A Q&A with Ron Johnson, president, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities
Editor’s note: Earlier this summer, Bemidji City Councilor Ron Johnson was elected to serve as president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.The nonprofit, nonpartisan Coalition represents more than 90 cities outside of the Twin Cities metro area. It has long been considered one of the most active and highest-profile organizations to represent rural communities in St. Paul.
As president, Johnson will help direct efforts to inform state legislators about issues unique to Greater Minnesota, such as Local Government Aid, economic development, transportation and environmental policy.
In this Q&A, he talks about his background, his plans for the Coalition and what the group’s work can do for Minnesota businesses.
Q. Tell us about yourself.
A. Well, I'm actually a Bemidji boy, born and raised here. Like lots of other people, I left for a while for school and the military (the Minnesota Army National Guard), then found myself coming back to graduate from Bemidji State University.
I'm a marketing person and a graphic designer by trade. In the Twin Cities, I went to Brown Institute for Radio and Television, and I found myself coming back to Bemidji in 1979 to help get the PBS public-television station started.
Q. And you’ve been there ever since?
A. Yes. I work with Lakeland PBS; that's my day job, and I’m the design and promotion manager. We have about 30 employees; we started with just six, including me.
And of course, we started with just a half-a-day of broadcasting -- sign on at 3, sign off at 11, one channel. Now, we have six channels that we broadcast out of here all 24 hours.
Q. How did you get involved with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities?
A. I decided to run for Bemidji City Council back in 2000. And then when I got elected, a longtime council member who had been on for a number of years – he was in his fifth term – pulled me aside after a meeting and said, “You know, you can get involved with a lot of great groups when you are on the Council. But if you want to get involved with the one group that means the most to Bemidji and our residents, that would be the Coalition.”
He invited me down to the Coalition's conference in Wenonah back in 2001, and I went with him and our mayor at the time. That was my first experience with the Coalition, and I've been going to those conferences ever since. I’ve only missed one in the past 18 years.
Q. Why? What has been the organization’s appeal?
A. Initially, the area that I focused on was annexation.
When I got on the City Council, annexation was a big issue. We just hadn't been growing as a city; from 1990 to 2000, according to the census, Bemidji had grown by less than 4 percent. Meanwhile, the surrounding area had grown by more than 400 percent.
So we had a lot of buildup of townships neighboring our city, and it was really costing us in terms of efficient delivery of services. We actually had some areas that were totally surrounded by the city; they needed to be brought into the city, as Minnesota law allows.
So we got really aggressive about annexation – and not coincidentally, annexation was and is a top priority for the Coalition.
When something is a problem for Greater Minnesota, it's generally a problem for the Coalition, because that's what the Coalition is all about.
The other big issue was and is Local Government Aid. If you have followed that issue, you know that LGA was designed to help cities that have greater needs than what they could reasonably cover in property taxes.
(Editor’s note: As Minnesota Public Radio has described, “the cities that came to depend on LGA also tended to serve as regional hubs, providing services for people not paying into property tax coffers. The vision was that no matter where you happened to live in Minnesota, the quality of services would remain basically constant.”)
The Minnesota Miracle came out of that. The system restricts cities from levying local sales and income taxes, but in return, sends state money to cities to help them pay for services.
Today, we're trying to get LGA funding back to where it was in 2002, which is about the time I came on the Bemidji Council. Back then, our general fund was just a little shy of $7 million, and our state aid was 54 percent of that.
Now, our general fund is a little over $11 million, and our state aid is 32 percent. So it's not even quite a third; clearly, it hasn't kept up.
That has been a very big focus, and again, LGA has been a top priority for the Coalition as well. We spend the biggest part of our lobbying budget in trying to to maintain that funding and if possible, to get is back up to the level that it used to be at.
Q. If you were to talk to a Chamber of Commerce somewhere, how would you describe the benefit of the Coalition to Minnesota’s businesses?
A. First, LGA itself is very important to Greater Minnesota businesses. The program helps keep property taxes low enough so that businesses aren't scared to look at your community.
Second, besides LGA and annexation, another of the Coalition’s top priorities is transportation, which is especially important the further you get away from the Twin Cities metro area.
Bemidji is in that position, and we know that if we're going to attract industry and businesses, we have to have a strong, strong road system and one that connects with the main arteries in Minnesota.
So, the Corridors of Commerce highway-funding program of the Minnesota Department of Commerce is something that the Coalition is pushing, and that program and others can benefit businesses across the state.
We're also dealing with workforce housing. We've been lobbying for that through our teamwork with the Greater Minnesota Partnership.
But what we're finding now is that child care has become almost a bigger problem for businesses than workforce housing. For example, Anderson Fabrics up in Blackduck, Minn., can bus people in for work. But if those people don't have child care, they're not going to get on the bus in the first place.
Last year, Prairie Business did a big article on Digi-Key in Thief River Falls, and I know that child care is an issue up there, too. Child care providers are at a big disadvantage in the rural areas, especially when the workforce shortage makes it so very hard to pay a competitive wage.
Q. What are some ideas that are on the table?
A. One possibility is that there could be some incentive for the businesses themselves. For example, a company such as Digi-Key (or even a small company) could start its own day-care operation, and maybe they would get a tax credit or some other sort of incentive for doing so.
I know those companies don't want to be in the child care business. But if they have the space for it, and if doing so would prove to be a strong recruiting and retention tool, then maybe it’s worth looking at.
Furthermore, think of the challenges of finding child care if you’re a parent who does shift work. Child care in that time frame gets even more complicated and crazy, and making it available would be even more of a benefit.
So a company could appeal to not only the 8-to-5 worker, but also the people doing evening shifts.
Q. Are these the kinds of things that the Coalition is likely to call for in the Legislature?
A. We met this summer, and we talked about five priority areas: LGA and property tax relief, annexation and land use, economic development, environment and energy, and transportation.
And I've been hearing a lot more about child care, both in Bemidji as well as at Coalition meetings. It’s an economic development issue for sure.
After the primary election, the political lay of the land will start to become clear. We know we're going to have a new governor, and we have many, many seats in the House and Senate up for grabs. So a lot will depend on who gets in.
Q. You’ve been involved with the Coalition for 16 or 17 years. What keeps you coming back?
A. You know, when I was sitting in the audience this summer, waiting to take the gavel of the Coalition as the new president, I thought back to my first meeting all those years ago. I was wondering, how many other people who are here this summer would also have been in the room back then?
Not many, I’m sure. Maybe a handful, and of course the board has completely changed.
But that’s the thing. You can completely change the board, the staff and the lobbyists of this organization – but the mission and the reputation of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities remains.
That’s because its ability to do good work for the cities continues.
And that's a sign of a good organization – when you could have all the players change, yet you still retain your focus.