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Cities warn that next year will be rough

ST. PAUL - Minnesota city leaders say they have trimmed spending gently for the past six years, with the public feeling little impact, but those days may be over.

With $44 million being trimmed from state aid cities expected this year and more than $100 million next year, mayors, council members and city administrators say the public soon will begin to feel the cuts.

In Worthington, for instance. Councilman Lyle Ten Haken said that officials next Tuesday will begin to look at making budget cuts the public will experience.

"What are we going to squeeze out of this budget?" Ten Haken said council members will ask.

One thing Worthington officials may examine is the city public golf course, which does not turn a profit, the councilmember said Thursday while eating lunch at the annual Minnesota League of Cities conference in downtown St. Paul.

Officials attending the conference from across the state said the same thing: Every city service is at risk, even public safety.

"I can't see how it can't be hurt," said the league's new president, Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede.

The national recession forced state officials to make a variety of cuts in their budgets. But since the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty this year did not agree on an overall budget, the governor on Wednesday will announce plans to cut $2.7 billion out of the two-year, $31 billion budget that begins that day.

Among cuts Pawlenty plans, unless he changes his mind in the next few days, will be state payments to cities, counties and townships. The local government aid program, which helps cities, would be one of the biggest cuts Pawlenty makes.

City officials say the $44 million 2009 cut is manageable.

But more than twice that amount will be cut from their expected state payments in 2010, Pawlenty said. City leaders say that will be more difficult for them.

Pawlenty often says cities have enough places to cut that they can keep police and fire protection as is. That is not how many city leaders see things.

"We have made things so lean, now we do have to look at public safety," Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said.

Willmar Mayor Lester Heitke said that his city has a hiring freeze, but a just-announced detective resignation could be an exception. The police chief will talk to the council and mayor about the resignation in coming days, and city leaders will decide whether to fill the job.

But the Willmar Fire Department will not be rebuilt to its former level. Fourteen firefighters recently retired and just six were hired to replace them, the mayor said. He and council members will look at if they need to find more firefighters later this year, but will not replace all 14.

Like most cities, Heitke said, Willmar is holding opening vacant positions and buying less as ways to save money.

Hawley Vice Mayor John Young Jr. said that 2003 budget cuts included reducing library and community center hours. The city's plan to deal with this year's cuts will be much the same: "We will try to spread it around."

However, delaying street work, for instance, can come back to haunt a city when more expensive repairs are needed later, Young said.

"We will cut some things that we should be doing," he said.

For one thing, the Hawley police chief wanted to add a fourth officer to give the community 24-hour coverage. But Young said that will not happen because of the aid cuts.

The mayor of nearby Moorhead said that while city officials knew cuts were coming, now that Pawlenty has released his plan, they can make their own plans.

Looking at getting $1 million less from the state than expected next year, Voxland said, city leaders will have at least talk about raising property taxes.

Council member Carol Duff of Red Wing said her city will suffer from aid cuts, but its citizens are helping to make up the difference.

"We have a very aggressive volunteer program," she said.

For instance, she said, civic organizations are caring for some parks and other green spaces. "It's a sense of community."

Recreation programs cannot be cut, she added. "If you don't keep the kids busy in the summer, you will end up with problems."

Duff's opinion was echoed by other city officials, who said recreation and library programs for young Minnesotans can help keep them out of trouble - and the legal system - down the road.

Kevin Frazell of the city league said about 150 cities are represented at the three-day St. Paul conference. That is a 25 percent smaller turnout than in a normal year, mostly due to the economy.

The league honored Voxland with its C.C. Ludwig Award.

Voxland won for his work on Moorhead's downtown revitalization program and for efforts during the recent flooding. He is a former league president.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.