Mayors defend LGA need: Dayton sides with city leaders on state aid
ST. PAUL -- No one argued over the need to continue state city aid during a Wednesday meeting of Minnesota mayors and Gov. Mark Dayton, but it will be a different story when Republicans who control the Legislature write their budget.
Republicans are expected to release an outline of their budget plan today and it could look like an earlier budget bill they offered that held Local Government Aid at the 2010 level, which is lower than what cities earlier were told to expect. LGA is the largest local aid from the state.
Democrat Dayton vetoed that earlier bill. His own budget would send about $2 billion to local governments in various programs and other $1 billion in tax credits that the administration says can hold down local property taxes.
Long-time mayors said they do not remember a mayor-governor meeting over state aid to local governments like occurred in the Capitol Wednesday. While Dayton and mayors agree on the importance of state payments, mayors said it is important to reinforce the Democrat governor's feelings and provide him with arguments as he and Republicans enter budget negotiations later this spring.
Republicans say cities and other local governments must take their own cuts as the state fills a $5 billion deficit.
"We've already done our share to help with the (state) budget," Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski told Dayton, referring to Local Government Aid and other state cutbacks since 2003.
Added Thief River Falls Mayor Steve Nordhagen: "Thief River Falls and other cities out there would not exist without Local Government Aid."
About 20 city officials delivered their message to a governor who wants LGA and other local government payments increased in the next two-year budget.
"More people need more services," Dayton said, and cities without big property tax bases must rely on state aid to help.
Talking to reporters after the meeting, Dayton said that LGA is a high priority of his, but said he and legislators must compromise as they negotiate the budget. He would not say whether he could accept lower local aid payments.
Looking at Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden, whose town sustained significant tornado damage last year, Dayton said that without state aid Wadena would not have had enough money to fund emergency needs.
And, he said, any community's local aid cuts equal a property tax increase as cities have nowhere else to turn to keep services intact.
"We think this is a critical time for the cities throughout the state," said Park Rapids Mayor Nancy Carroll, who as Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities president hosted Wednesday's meeting with Dayton.
The future of cities is at stake, she added.
Smiglewski told Dayton that cities need to maintain themselves adequately to attract residents, something made tough when state payments fall.
"It causes our communities to be less attractive places to live," he said.
Job opportunities need city help, he added. "LGA really makes that happen."
Smiglewski also urged Dayton to make sure Minneapolis and St. Paul continue to receive state aid. There is talk in the Capitol among some lawmakers that aid should continue to rural cities, but not the biggest ones.
"We feel that probably would have a serious effect on all of Minnesota," the mayor said.
Hutchinson Mayor Steve Cook brought up an issue in the news this week as an argument to keep LGA payments going to cities.
Hundreds of jobs are expected to end at Hutchison Technology as the company shrinks its workforce. Dayton said he wants to meet with the company's leaders to see if the state can do something to retain the jobs.
"In International Falls, our back is really up against the wall," said City Council member Cynthia Jaksa.
She was responding to Dayton's comments that cities already have raised property taxes more than Minnesotans can handle and cities should not face more cuts.
"Your budgets are more austere," Dayton said. "You are out of options."
Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren said LGA cuts mean one thing: "We have been living below our means."
If there are further cuts, he added, cities will need to look at closing libraries, senior citizen centers and other services just to protect public safety operations.
Wolden said that LGA was 55 percent of his city's budget eight years ago, and now it is 45 percent.
This year shows the importance of state aid, he said. Wadena already has used 40 percent of its 2011 snow-plowing budget and an LGA cut would hamper snow removal later this year.
Wolden said he spent two hours with Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, and Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, recently, trying to convince them the importance of LGA.
"We have cut our budget 10 percent," he said was part of his message to lawmakers.
Like in other cities, Wadena streets have not been repaired as quickly as in the past, he added.
Mayors said they are doing what lawmakers want as a money-saving measure: working with each other.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said that on Tuesday he met with his emergency management leaders and began to get them thinking about how they can help Moorhead during expected spring flooding.
"We are one Minnesota," Coleman said.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak added that after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in 2007, nearly every Minnesota community sent his city help.
Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said that in his 11 years on the job he does not recall a meeting like mayors had with Dayton.
"This is really a huge step forward," Voxland said.
Moorhead has two major problems, he said. One is low-tax North Dakota, just across the Red River, and the other is the Red River itself.
"I want the jobs in my community," Voxland said, but with the state forcing up property taxes his task is tough.
"We also tend to have some floods," he said, after Dayton and other mayors had discussed this spring's expected Red River flood.
Moorhead has laid off enough workers that it hurts as flood preparations proceed, the mayor said.
"As we go into flood fights, we don't have the key people there," he said. "The sheer manpower would be helpful."
Moorhead already has spent $800,000 to fight the flood, and the Red remains within its banks, Voxland said. LGA is needed to pay the bills, he added.
Dayton said he hopes that if floods occur, he and legislators can agree on emergency aid by the end of this year's legislative session in May. He told the mayors that he already has met with legislative leaders on the subject.
Voxland said that "education is the key" to keeping local payments. Much of that education involves Republican lawmakers who are likely to seek LGA cuts.
"We have to talk to them again and again," Voxland said.
The mayor said that despite stark differences between the parties, he remains optimistic a deal favorable to cities will come about. "They have to all grow up and learn they have to play together."
Nordhagen said that local aid helps all Minnesota communities because keeping workers is important across the state.
If businesses close, he said, "these jobs aren't coming to the (Twin Cities) metro area. They are going elsewhere."
Fergus Falls Mayor Hal Leland told Dayton that even though his town does not adjoin North Dakota, just being close to the state line means it is hard to attract business. LGA cuts are hurting, he said.
"This cannot continue without devastating circumstances," Leland said.
In Bemidji, only slightly more than half of the property is taxable, Mayor Dave Larson said, with so much land owned by government. So the 31 percent LGA cuts since 2002 severely affect the city's budget.
If LGA were to end, Larson said, Bemidji property taxes would rise 79 percent to make up the difference.
Like other mayors, Larson said the city already has made cuts. The city's 100-person payroll has shrunk to 88, he said.
"Our needs are increasing, our resources are decreasing," Larson told Dayton.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.