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Retiring lobbyist kept greater Minnesota out of ‘hurt bag’

Tim Flaherty speaks at a meeting years ago. In 2019, he is retiring as Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities lobbyist. Courtesy of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities1 / 6
Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson and Tim Flaherty discuss issues when the mayor led the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. Courtesy of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities2 / 6
Bradley Peterson, left, talks to long-time Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities lobbyist Tim Flaherty in the Minnesota Capitol. Peterson is taking over in 2019 for Flaherty as the group's chief lobbyist. Courtesy of John Kaul3 / 6
Tim Flaherty takes a typical lobbyist pose, waiting, at the Minnesota state Capitol. He is retiring in 2019 as long-time Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities lobbyist. Courtesy of John Kaul4 / 6
Then-state Sen. Keith Langseth, of Glyndon, talks to Tim Flaherty, right, in the Minnesota Capitol. Flaherty is retiring in 2019 after years as Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities lobbyist. Courtesy of John Kaul5 / 6
Tim Flaherty, right, sits on a panel with Dan McElroy, center, and Sen. John Hottinger years ago. Flaherty is retiring in 2019 after years of leading the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities' lobbying efforts. Courtesy of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities6 / 6

ST. PAUL — Greater Minnesota city leaders say their constituents should thank Tim Flaherty every time they flush a toilet.

And when firetrucks show up at a fire. And when utility bills are not as high as they could be. And when they use the public library. And when they visit a city park.

Without Flaherty, “we are in a hurt bag,” Bemidji City Councilman Ron Johnson said.

Especially important to city leaders is Local Government Aid, a program that sends state money to cities and one Flaherty has championed for 35 years.

Johnson and Thief River Falls Mayor Brian Holmer said that with about half of land in their cities not on property tax rolls, they depend on LGA for routine expenditures such as firefighting, police, libraries, parks, sewage treatment and other services their citizens expect them to deliver.

Since 1984, Flaherty has been the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities executive director and lobbyist, gradually changing the work from a one-man shop to today’s operation that has several lobbyists and people such as data analysts who provide information about how legislation could affect the nearly 100 cities who belong to the group.

House Tax Chairman Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said Flaherty was on the job whenever needed, including 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. as legislative sessions were winding down. Flaherty was there “making sure local aid was in the bill,” Marquart said.

“I have no doubt in my mind that Local Government Aid is stronger today than it would have been without Flaherty,” said Marquart, an outspoken supporter of rural Minnesota. “He really made a difference.”

At 69, Flaherty has decided to retire.

A graduate of Cathedral High School in Duluth, Flaherty left the state for law school and time in Chicago and Oregon, where he wrote legislation. When he returned to Minnesota in 1980, starting four years as a Minneapolis lobbyist, he came with that key knowledge.

He left his Minneapolis job in 1984 and immediately turned his attention to the much smaller greater Minnesota communities. He was the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities' first lobbyist.

Flaherty said city leaders do most of the lobbying themselves, but he and his team provide them facts and then babysit legislation through the Legislature’s often convoluted process.

Sen. Bill Weber, a Republican who was Luverne mayor, said Flaherty always has had people with a “keen sense” of what greater Minnesota needs.

He is not worried about Flaherty’s retirement. “He has very capable people within the organization.”

“We’re going to miss him,” Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said, adding that Flaherty’s replacement, Bradley Peterson, will be as effective.

Like it or not, Flaherty always will be associated with LGA, a topic that makes Minneapolis and St. Paul allies with greater Minnesota cities because they depend on the aid. Suburbs usually have more taxable property, so they get little state aid.

“We are extremely dependent upon LGA, “ Willmar City Council member Audrey Nelson said.

The program started in the early 1970s after lawmakers devised the “Minnesota miracle,” which greatly increased state funding for local school districts. An unexpected side effect, Flaherty said, was that suburban districts like Edina benefited greatly from the change, while places like Minneapolis found themselves hurting.

When then-House Speaker Martin Sabo created a plan to help Minneapolis, he soon realized that to get enough votes to pass he needed to include rural communities.

LGA became an aid to cities that could not collect enough property tax to provide for fundamental needs. It has been a controversial issue over the years, especially since the aid was chopped in 2003 and recipients annually try to convince lawmakers to bring it back up to 2002 levels.

“The idea is that citizens should have parks and libraries and good police and fire protection, even if they are in an area without a good tax base,” Flaherty said. “That is the concept that we sold, and that has been very effective.”