Lehmann makes case for LGA
ST. PAUL - "I don't know if I should give you a handshake or a body check."
That's the message Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann said he delivered to Gov. Tim Pawlenty as they met in the governor's office at the State Capitol Tuesday morning. Both enjoy the game of hockey as players and fans.
Actually, Lehmann said the two had a productive meeting about the need for rural regional centers to keep Local Government Aid, prompted by Pawlenty's radio show a month ago that bashed the city of Bemidji's near-20 percent property tax hike which the Republican governor said showed excessive spending, not making up for lost LGA through his unallotments.
"It was a very cordial meeting," said Lehmann, who was in St. Paul for Bemidji Day at the Capitol. "He understands our plight as far as LGA is concerned. His proposals are proposals. He knows that the Legislature will be sending it out in a modified form. He's got his job to do of saying this is what I'm here elected to do."
The state faces a $994 million budget deficit in this biennium, and Pawlenty has frequently looked at cutting state aid to cities. He accused Bemidji of increasing property taxes more than the loss of LGA, and referred to Bemidji as a "government town."
Lehmann was accompanied by Ron Eischens, city finance director, in presenting Bemidji's case to the governor.
"We shared with him some things I don't know if he was fully aware of when he was doing his radio show," Lehmann said. "Some of the increase in our local levy is due to items like the new public works facility ... the law enforcement center jointly with the county, and things like that. We've got an annual debt service to pay, and that's part of our levy."
The governor was told about the impact of LGA cuts to the city over the years, with the city reducing its workforce by 12 full-time workers the past decade. Minneapolis would have to lose 31 percent or 281 officers for their offenses per officer to equal Bemidji's, he said.
Lehmann and Eischens told the Republican governor that the construction of a new law enforcement center in 2004 costs the city $200,000 annually in lease payments to Beltrami County, the construction of a new public works building in 2008 costs the city $351,000 in annual bond debt payments, and implementation of a street improvement program designed to replace aging infrastructure and subsidize assessments costs $451,000 annually.
"I don't think he was fully aware of that," Lehmann said. "He was very appreciative of the discussion that we had with him today, and we have clarified some things for him. And he clarified a few things for us, and it worked out very well."
Lehmann called it a positive meeting.
"Did we walk out of there agreeing that things are going to change? No, but we both knew better about where we stood on those issues," Lehmann said. "I think he's a little more sympathetic to exactly what Bemidji is faced with, based on the comments he made in his radio program in January."
Part of the reason to speak with Pawlenty was also to keep LGA intact, he said. "We impressed upon him the need for Local Government Aid and the situation Bemidji is in isn't necessarily unique to the rest of the state. But with 43 percent of our property being non-taxable ..."
When Lehmann said that, he said Pawlenty told him, "See, you are a government town."
"I told him, as a regional center, we're bound to be a government town," he said. "We had a nice discussion about that, clarifying what government town meant."
Now that Pawlenty is more aware of Bemidji's situation, and the need for LGA, Lehmann said, "I think he's going to be looking at it a little bit differently."
The Bemidji delegation made an impression, Lehmann said. "It was good education for both of us. What we shared with him gave him much more awareness ... of what these cuts mean to us, what the impacts are going to be."
Lehmann, who announced Saturday he will seek the House 4A seat held by Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, as a Republican, said he didn't talk politics with Pawlenty.
He did, however, get a commitment from Pawlenty to attend next October's grand opening of the Bemidji Regional Event Center as Bemidji State University opens its first Western Collegiate Hockey Association season.