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Changes in store when Rochester attains first-class status

By Jeffrey Pieters

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

Flying first class means you can rest easy, knowing all of your needs will be satisfied by others.

Becoming a "City of the First Class" is different.

There’s no outside consultant to hire, no guidebook for city leaders to follow as Rochester approaches 100,000 population — the threshold for becoming a state-defined first-class city, a designation that introduces new responsibilities and powers.

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There’s not even another city with recent experience in the matter. (The last Minnesota city to hit 100,000 was Duluth in 1935.)

So Rochester officials essentially had to invent the wheel, then spend hundreds of hours rolling through dusty state statutes and administrative rulings to find what legal ramifications await in 2011 or 2012, after the state officially adopts the population totals from the 2010 U.S. Census.

That was the job of a local law student, Matthew Sorenson, who took a summer leave of absence from his research job in Mayo Clinic’s sports medicine center to do the research.

Sorenson found about 700 references in state statutes and rules pertaining to Cities of the First Class. About 276 of those are still current, relevant and applicable to Rochester, he found. He didn’t find any blockbusters, he said.

"As a researcher, a lot of it was interesting," Sorenson said. "As an average citizen, probably very little was interesting."

The most significant potential change was a requirement that first-class cities run partisan local elections.

However, the state law allows cities to override that requirement with their own city charters. Rochester has already rewritten its charter to require that local elections remain nonpartisan as they have been.

The research mostly assuaged fears that a host of new state laws would turn Rochester upside-down.

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"I think when I started, there was this unknown feeling of how this would impact us," Sorenson said. "When I got done, I think there was the feeling this was going to be an easier change for the city."

First-class city regulations affect not only the city government, but also the school district and county government. Copies of Sorensen’s research were forwarded to those governments. You can also read his findings on the Web, at www.rochestermn.gov/departments/administration/projects/firstclass/firstclasscity.asp.

Here is a sampling of the legal changes to come:

  • First-class cities can establish neighborhood revitalization programs, funded by tax-increment financing, to eliminate blight, build new housing or eliminate health hazards.
  • First-class cities may borrow nearly twice as much, in relation to their size, as smaller cities may. A first-class city has debt capacity equal to 3 2/3 percent of the value of its taxable properties; other cities are limited to 2 percent.
  • State departments and agencies, and state officials who issue books, documents, journals, maps, pamphlets or reports must send copies to libraries located in first-class cities.
  • Police and fire department employees enrolled in departmental pension funds face compulsory retirement by age 65.
  • Police and county sheriff’s departments in first-class cities face limits to the number of "specially marked" vehicles they may use for traffic enforcement. The limit is 10 percent of the total traffic-enforcement fleet. (Specially marked vehicles are marked only with the city’s or county’s shield on the front passenger door.)
  • First-class cities are ensured representation on the screening board that apportions municipal state-aid street money across the state.
  • Teachers in first-class cities receive tenured status after they have been employed for three years.
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