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Bemidji, Minn. — David Minke has been losing sleep the past few nights. He's the city manager in Bemidji.
"I think we're all in very stressful situations," Minke says. "We're trying to figure out how to make due with less money, because we all know cuts are coming."
Minke says Bemidji would lose $500,000 in local government aid this year. The governor's proposed budget would take away another $1.2 million in 2004. But Gov. Pawlenty says the cuts won't be any more than five percent of a city's total revenues in the first year, and no more than 10 percent the following year.
We could literally cut everything except public works, public safety and general government, and still not have enough money to meet the governor's cut.
Minke says that's misleading. He says the governor's measure of "total revenue" includes money already dedicated to things like paying back city loans.
"It's easy to say it's a five percent cut," Minke says. "But once you factor out the items that really are fixed, and I'm talking about general obligation bonds -- that's over $800,000 in the city of Bemidji. And so when you factor those out, the actual impact on the general fund is about 17 percent."
Local goverment aid was created in the 1970s as a way to help cities with low tax bases. Bemidji depends heavily on it. It makes up 62 percent of the city's general fund. That's because half the property within Bemidji's city limits is not taxable.
Minke says nearly three-quarters of the city's budget goes to police and fire protection, street maintenance and public works. He says there aren't many frills.
"If we run the numbers, we could literally cut everything except public works, public safety and general government, and still not have enough money to meet the governor's cut," Minke says. "For Bemidji, it's hard to imagine how we would be able to make the cuts as proposed by the governor, without impacting essential services such as police and fire."
At the Bemidji fire hall, Public Safety Director Bruce Preece stands next to a 10-year-old fire truck. It's the newest vehicle in the fleet. Preece says the city is frugal about its spending.
I think these people should shut up, sharpen their pencils and get their budgets in line.
"We have, in the fire department alone, the same number of firemen today that we had in 1992," says Preece. "But in the last decade, we've had a 208 percent increase in calls for the fire department."
That puts pressure on the police department, too. Preece says the city has fewer officers on the street today than there were when he started with the force 30 years ago. But calls for service have risen 20 percent in the last five years. Preece worries the governor's budget proposal will mean he'll have to do with fewer officers.
"I think it could become a safety concern for us. It certainly compromises service, without a doubt," says Preece. "The extent of that service, that remains to be seen. If we actually have to take people off the street, yes, it does pose a safety issue."
Earlier this week, Gov. Pawlenty fired back at critics. He said city officials were trying to scare people by threatening reductions in police or fire services. And the governor has his supporters, including David Strom, who heads the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.
"I think these people should shut up, sharpen their pencils and get their budgets in line," says Strom.
Strom has long been critical of state aid to cities. He says there are cities receiving money that don't need it.
"Any municipality out there that has leadership that says they're going to be cutting essential services -- those people should be fired and immediately replaced," Strom says. "And I'm not kidding about that."
The dispute is likely the beginning of a long game of poker in the Legislature. Outstate lawmakers say the plan unfairly targets rural cities. But supporters say rural cities are seeing higher cuts because they've been the biggest recipients of state aid.