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Pawlenty, Lehmann spar over LGA

Mayor Richard Lehmann says Gov. Tim Pawlenty uses "fuzzy math" to describe Bemidji's state aid losses. Pawlenty, however, says the city raised property taxes higher than the state aid losses.

The two - both Republicans - continued their sparring match Friday, one began a week ago when Pawlenty used his weekly radio show to complain about Bemidji's property tax hikes and that lost Local Government Aid can't be blamed.

He called Bemidji "a government town" where government worker contracts soar and benefits added at a time when the private sector suffers.

Lehmann, in an Opinion page column Friday in the Bemidji Pioneer, called Pawlenty's comments "a drive-by rant" and that he used "fuzzy math."

"For 2010, no city employee -- either union or non-union -- will receive a wage or benefit increase," Lehmann wrote. "... the truth is, our LGA payment will be 26 percent less in 2010 than it was in 2003. a cumulative loss of $5.9 million."

Lehmann said the City Council has been "fiscally prudent" in coping with lost state aid., using $300,000 in reserves to make up for lost aid.

He adds that "through smart budgeting practices and investments, the city has kept its average annual property tax rate increase to 2.4 percent over the past 10 years and increased its tax base by 155 percent."

Pawlenty, for his part, used this Friday's radio show to again use Bemidji as an example why LGA should be limited.

As in everything in politics and government, Pawlenty said Friday morning, the story "gets distorted so you have cities where the state is paying half or more of their entire city budget for Local Government Aid, and I just made the point that many mayors are saying that the only reason property taxes are going so high is because Pawlenty cut Local Government Aid."

Pawlenty cited state Revenue Department figures that Bemidji's property tax levy rose from $1.2 million in 2003, the year Pawlenty took office, to nearly $3 million in 2008, and over $3 million in 2009.

"So that's a big increase over those years," he said, indicating a $2.4 million increase in 10 years, almost a 200 percent increase. Meanwhile, LGA rose from $2.7 million in 2000 to $3 million in 2009, "so it actually went up about $189,000."

So, Pawlenty said, "if you go from 2003, the year I became governor, to 2009, it went down about $491,000. But the point is ... it went up or down a few hundred thousand bucks, and their property taxes went way, way, way, way beyond that. So that's the point we're trying to make, that you can't use LGA as an excuse why property taxes went through the roof."

He cited Bemidji as one of many cities where LGA accounts for half or more of the city budget. He'd like a state law that gives the aid only to small cities and poor cities, and no more than 30 percent of a city's budget.

About Lehmann, Pawlenty said he's "a good guy and a friend, and a fellow hockey player, and somebody I do have a lot of personal regard to."

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities plans to hold a press conference 12:30 p.m. Thursday at Bemidji City Hall, where several mayors will discuss the necessity of LGA to their cities.