Frey: Lack of direct COVID-19 aid puts Minnesota's largest city in 'unique no man's land'

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Every Friday since the end of March, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has walked through the empty hallways of City Hall into his nearly empty office, recognizing that this new routine is only a brief return to normal.

The spread of COVID-19 forced hundreds of city employees to work from home over the past two months. For Frey, the weekly video Minneapolis City Council meeting is the only time he interacts with more than a handful of people at one time.

"I'm actually someone who would prefer to work from here," Frey said as he watered a plant on the window. "I like coming in to work. I enjoy seeing people."

As he paces a figure-eight-shaped route around his stand-up desk and toward the empty conference table in his corner office, Frey navigates a crisis that will define his term as mayor of Minnesota's largest city: the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic impacts.

"When I ran for office in 2017, I don't think the word 'pandemic' was mentioned a single time," Frey said in a recent interview.

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As mayor, Frey is facing his greatest test yet in responding to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impacts.

The city of Minneapolis is facing a massive revenue shortfall that could reach an estimated $200 million due to tax revenue and fees lost during the shutdown. And while less money is coming in because of COVID-19, more money is going out to fight the virus. Frey said the city has already spent nearly $65 million on response-related efforts.

"There's no doubt in my mind that those figures will just go up," he said.

Frey, who has already ordered freezes on hiring, wages and non-COVID related spending, acknowledges more difficult decisions are ahead and that nothing, including layoffs, is "off the table."

"Nobody can predict precisely how deep this budget shortfall will be because nobody can predict precisely how the economy is going to respond and it would be irresponsible for me to do so," he explained.

Frey must also consider the possibility that Minneapolis will receive far less federal assistance than other major metropolitan areas across the United States that were awarded millions of dollars in direct funding from the CARES Act.

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A provision in the bill resulted in money only going directly to cities with populations of more than 500,000, according to Frey.

"Minneapolis is just below that 500,000-marker," he said. "We're in this kind of unique no man's land."

Instead, the share of federal aid went directly to the state, leaving it up to legislators to decide which cities get money and how much money they get.

Several different measures that would have created a mechanism to distribute that money were left on the table when the 2020 legislative session ended Monday.

Frey argues that because Minneapolis takes on a "great degree of the burden" of the pandemic response, the city deserves a significant portion of that federal money. But he's concerned Minneapolis could be left out, once again, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in smaller, rural communities, such as Worthington.

"I want to make sure that small towns that are experiencing a great deal of difficulty due to the spread of COVID-19 are not pitted against our big cities, which are also seeing the same degree of difficulty," Frey said. "Worthington should get money under any formula. So should Minneapolis."

The city's financial future is likely to come into focus in June when Frey plans to release a revised budget. He's asked city council members to review and approve the new budget — a process that typically takes months — in two weeks.

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"This is a dramatically protracted timeline, and I recognize that, but it's also a reduced timeline that's essential because we don't have forever to make decisions," Frey said.

Between juggling phone calls and virtual meetings with city council members and staff, the mayor and father-to-be thinks about what the future will look like for the city.

"Minneapolis is going to come out of this," Frey said. "I have a kid on the way, due in September. I'm going to tell her that we did everything possible."