Mayors upset about looming LGA cutsAlexandria Mayor Dan Ness gave a grim scenario of what could await the city in 2010: Half of its 18-employee police department would be gone. Or: The parks and recreation budget would be eliminated. Or: The airport and the Runestone Community Center would close and the city would still have to cut another $100,000 from its budget.
By: Al Edenloff, Alexandria Echo Press
Alexandria Mayor Dan Ness gave a grim scenario of what could await the city in 2010:
Half of its 18-employee police department would be gone.
The parks and recreation budget would be eliminated.
The airport and the Runestone Community Center would close and the city would still have to cut another $100,000 from its budget.
Those are the hard choices the city could be faced with, Ness said, if Governor Tim Pawlenty follows through on his plan to use “unallotment” to balance the state’s budget by cutting local government aid (LGA).
Ness and mayors from St. Paul, Morris, Wadena, Glenwood and Fergus Falls held a news conference in Alexandria Friday to explain their plight and urge the governor to minimize any more LGA cuts.
Alexandria stands to lose about $700,000 in 2010. To absorb a $368,000 LGA cut this year, it already had to dip into reserves – reserves the state auditor’s office recommended the city build up to maintain a solid bond rating. Alexandria also refrained from hiring two more police officers, held off major equipment purchases and trimmed its budget significantly, Ness said. “We’re budgeted down to the bone,” Ness said, “and now we are being asked to cut some more. Where do you cut?”
Ness called on the governor to reconsider his LGA stance and come up with a fair and equitable way of distributing the state’s budget burden.
Ness said that although LGA constitutes only about 3 percent of the general fund, Pawlenty has continually used it to fix the state’s budget woes – a tactic that’s making cities feel singled out and frustrated. “We’re sick of getting stuck paying for the drinks,” Ness said.
Former Republican lawmaker, Dan Dorman, now director of the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency, said LGA cuts leave cities with two choices: Dramatically increase property taxes, which cities have been doing to make up for LGA cuts dating back to 2003; or make dramatic budget cuts – not just belt tightening but elimination of services the public relies on.
Unlike the Legislature, cities can’t shift funds or use anticipated bond revenues from other sources to balance their budgets, Dorman said. “Cities do not have the same tools that the state does,” he said.
Cities, Dorman added, don’t expect to come out of the budget crisis unscathed but they do expect the solution to be balanced and reasonable.
City leaders support final LGA cuts that are closer to those proposed by the House – $85 million over the next two years using a method to spread the reductions more fairly among the cities. (The Legislature’s final tax bill included no cuts to LGA.)
The mayors at Friday’s conference called on the governor to meet with legislative leaders from both political parties to work out a compromise and then call for a special one-day session to get it done.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said that Minnesota can’t afford to balance its budget on the backs of cities. He noted that two-thirds of St. Paul’s budget goes toward police officers and firefighters.
Other cities, Coleman noted, face similar budget scenarios where the only things left to cut are essential services. He’s heard of one city, for example, that’s contemplating reducing its snowplowing to every other snowfall.
Complicating the problem are mandates that the state impose on cities, noted Glenwood Mayor John Stone. He said that Glenwood, which stands to lose about $200,000 next year, recently received notice from the Minnesota Department of Education that the city must contribute an additional $9,000 toward the Viking Library System.
“Mandates are something we [cities] have to deal with every day,” Stone said.
Fergus Fall Mayor Hal Leland said that cities are prepared to share in the pain. Fergus Falls, he said, has already used reserves, delayed hiring, restricted travel expenses, cut seasonal employees and made other adjustments this year. It expects to make more cuts and layoffs next year and impose a wage and benefit freeze. “All we ask is for a fair and equitable solution,” Leland said.
The mayors called on citizens to contact Pawlenty with budget ideas and to voice concern over LGA cuts.
The governor created a special e-mail address to gather input on the budget: budgetideas @state.mn.us.
Citizens may also call 1-800-657-3717.