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City mayors: State aid needed to provide core services

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman speaks during a Thursday news conference at Bemidji City Hall. From left are Bemidji City Councilors Ron Johnson and Jerry Downs, Mayor Richard Lehmann and Coleman. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Further state aid cuts to cities "would be devastating, to the city of St. Paul -- they'd be devastating to cities across Minnesota," St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said Thursday.

Coleman, Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann and Albert Lea Mayor Mike Murtaugh held a news conference at Bemidji City Hall -- one of many this week across Minnesota -- to say that Local Government Aid has been cut enough, that city services are affected and higher property taxes the result.

"This is not hyperbole, this is not to raise an unnecessary alarm," Coleman said. "But the fact of the matter is we have been cutting into the bone for many, many years now, and there isn't room to cut left."

Coleman, speaking for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said that "we are hoping that the Legislature and the governor will understand that the strength of our state is dependent upon the strength of our communities, and the strength of our communities is dependent upon having the resources that we need to put officers in the streets. firefighters in the fire houses, and do all the other things that the city of St. Paul and cities across Minnesota do."

The state faces a $1.2 billion budget deficit in the current biennium which ends June 30, 2011, and a possible $5.4 billion deficit in the following biennium, which doesn't include inflation.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in his State of the State address Thursday, urged lawmakers to ratify the $2.7 billion in unallotments he made last summer and to quickly solve the current deficit.

"On Monday, you'll see my plan to solve the additional budget deficit identified in the November budget forecast," Pawlenty said. "It will include very dramatic and painful spending reductions. While programs for the military, veterans, core public safety functions and K-12 classrooms will be protected, nearly all other areas will be proposed for reduction."

Pawlenty in the past has gone after LGA, unalloting $201 million or 13 percent of the state aid since 2008. Coleman said LGA is not only on Pawlenty's hit list but also some Democrats.

But, he says, the governor made his own case for protecting LGA as it is a "core public safety function" in providing Minnesotans with police and fire service. And Lehmann would add street maintenance to that list.

"What is more 'core' public safety function than police officers and firefighters?" Coleman asked. "That is the very essence. City attorneys that are prosecuting the cases that the police officers bring in -- that is the most core function in public safety in the state of Minnesota."

If the governor unallots money to people providing that6 service at that level of government, he said, "then he is not protecting that core function which he claims."

The state has state troopers and prison guards, Coleman said. "Public safety are the officers that are patrolling our streets and the firefighters that are putting out our fires."

Public safety includes street maintenance, Bemidji's mayor added. He cited an example two weeks ago when a rural Bemidji woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning and responding ambulances needed an accompanying tow truck because of snow-covered roads.

"If you can't plow your streets, and emergency personnel cannot get through in weather like we've had fairly recently ... they go hand in hand," Lehmann said. "If we're cutting street maintenance, we're also impacting the ability to provide those necessary services of public safety.

"We're not running four-wheel-drive vehicles for our police officers here," he added.

Albert Lea's Murtaugh summarized findings of a survey of 55 cities of populations greater than 3,000 people, stating that in response to LGA cuts, more cities cut expenditures than raised revenue in their 2010 budgets.

Also, street maintenance was the most frequently cut service, while 69 percent of cities reduced their workforce and 33 percent reduced public safety personnel. The average property tax levy increase for 2010 was 5 percent.

The latest attacks on LGA came from Pawlenty during his Jan. 29 weekly radio address in which he used Bemidji as an example, "a government town" that raised its property taxes more than it lost in state aid. He continued the next week, while Lehmann authored a column that disputed Pawlenty's "drive-by rant" and use of "fuzzy math."

"When LGA is cut, cities have no other avenue than property taxes in which to rely in order to continue to provide the services our residents have come to expect," Lehmann said Thursday. "Since the governor took office in 2002, LGA has been cut by just over $1 billion cumulatively, and city property taxes have consequently increased over 60 percent statewide."

While the governor used his radio program to suggest that Bemidji hasn't been affected by LGA cuts, Lehmann said, "but the truth is our LGA payment will be 26 percent less in 2010 than in 2003, a cumulative loss of $5.9 million and the city lost nearly $1 million in the last three years through the governor's unallotments."

To adjust, he said, Bemidji has been "fiscally prudent" and cut $300,000 in 2010 in services, which includes freezing city employee wages and benefits. "On his radio show, the governor implied that Bemidji has been handing out wage and benefit increases like candy, and this is absolutely untrue."

Bemidji is a "government town," Lehmann admits, but in that 43 percent of Bemidji's tax capacity is non-taxable federal, state, county and city offices, as well as libraries, parks and other amenities.

While Pawlenty criticized Bemidji for a nearly 20 percent property tax increase for 2010, "Bemidji's taxable property value has increased over 155 percent since 2000," Lehmann said. The city has kept its annual average property tax rate increase to 2.4 percent over the past 10 years.

"So while he is trying to paint a picture of fiscal imprudence, we are spreading the tax burden over a larger tax base," he said.

"In Bemidji, we're proud of the way we have planned for hard times like these, but make no mistake, cuts to LGA mean cuts to essential city services and increases in property taxes," Bemidji's mayor said.

LGA is 2 percent of the state budget but has taken 16 percent of the cuts, St. Paul's Coleman said.

"We have set our levy, we have set our budget for 2010," he said. "Everything that we are doing costs more. ... We're being good stewards, but the burden is falling more and more onto property taxpayers, and that's a terrible way to try to balance out the needs of the cities."