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Bemidji prepares for looming state aid cuts
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Bemidji police officer John Hunt works full time as liason officer at the Bemidji Middle School. Governor Tim Pawlenty's proposed cuts in state aid could force the city to eliminate Hunt's position and cut four police officers from the force. Some say Hunt's presense in the school reduces crime and breaks down barriers between kids and cops. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Cities across Minnesota are facing deep budget cuts. Governor Tim Pawlenty's proposal to erase a $4.2 billion budget deficit would slash aid to cities by more than 20 percent over two years. People in Bemidji are bracing for a broad range of cuts, including reductions in the police department. But some lawmakers now say the governor's plan has little chance of passing in the Legislature.

Bemidji, Minn. — Bemidji is preparing for the worst. If the governor's budget plan is adopted, the city would lose $1.7 million in state aid over the next two years.

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Image Officer John Hunt

City officials have already eliminated a summer recreation program that serves 700 kids. They've turned off some street lights to save electricity. And now they're looking at cutting four police officers.

The police department cuts would effectively end officer John Hunt's role as liason officer at the Bemidji Middle School. Hunt has been working full time in the school for five years. If the city's budget is slashed, he'd be reassigned to patrol duty. Hunt teaches the DARE drug and alcohol resistance program. He investigates crimes in the school. And he works to break down barriers between kids and cops.

"I believe quite honestly that this is one of the most important jobs in law enforcement right now," says Hunt. "I believe that we need to be in these kids' lives at a very early age."

School officials say Hunt's presence has reduced serious violations in the school by more than 30 percent in just the past year. When Hunt gets word of a fight in the school, he investigates the incident as a crime.

"The days of just saying, 'well, kids will be kids, and a fight is a fight and that's all it is', are pretty much gone," Hunt says. "We try to treat every assault as an assault. If it's a crime out on the street, then it ought to be a crime here in the building."

Kids crowd around Hunt as he walks down the hall. Eighth-grader Vanessa Hutton says they like having him around.

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Image Bemidji Public Safety Director Bruce Preece

"I think it's really cool to have officer Hunt in our school, because, yeah, we feel safer and he's just cool," says Hutton.

Bemidji Public Safety Director Bruce Preece says four fewer police officers will have a tangible effect. In addition to the school liason officers, Preece may also have to cut a detective and pull an officer off a drug task force.

"I would presume within a year or two after doing this we would see an increase in crime," says Preece. "And we would most definately see an increase in the amount of drug trafficking going on in our community. These programs do have a positive affect."

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Image Bemidji City Manager David Minke

The city of Bemidji is preparing to take other measures, and City Manager David Minke says they won't go unnoticed by the public. No more lifeguards at city beaches. Fewer dollars for the library and history museum. Higher fees. Fewer city hall hours. And parking fines could double. Minke says there's a lot that won't get done.

"The grass in the parks isn't going to get mowed as much," Minke says. "The streets aren't going to get swept as often. The potholes aren't going to get filled as quickly. Clearly, the message is that there's going to be less government."

There's a growing feeling the governor's plan may not get through state lawmakers. Even some Republicans oppose the level of cuts to cities. Republican Rep. Doug Fuller of Bemidji says the aid formula needs to be changed. But the governor's plan isn't the answer.

"As much as I respect the governor, his LGA plan will not pass as he proposed it," Fuller says. "Even the governor has come out and said that he will be forthcoming with a more specific formula change that is going to affect cities differently than his original plan."

Changing the aid formula won't come easy. Lawmakers will likely grapple over what services should be considered essential to cities. The House is expected to release its budget proposal in the next few weeks.

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