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Hill: Public voices must be heard on city's budget woes

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Morris City Manager Blaine Hill is frustrated by a perceived lack of interest in the magnitude of budget troubles facing the city, as perhaps many of his counterparts around the state are, as well.

As the Minnesota Legislature begin to wrap up bonding negotiations with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the legislative session winds into its second half, there's still been relatively little done to calm the fears of local governments that are facing massive reductions in state aid. And there's been relatively little said to lawmakers who will decide what - and how much - those cuts will be.

"(Area lawmakers) are not hearing from anyone locally about losing (Local Government Aid)," Hill told the Morris City Council at its meeting Tuesday. "People haven't grasped what will happen."

So Hill, who is making 2010 budget updates, tried to spell it out.

Morris's operating budget is about $3.4 million, and $2.3 million of that had come in state aid. That was before Pawlenty's proposed budget called for the city to lose $292,000 in LGA. When added to $261,000 already cut, the city is out about $553,000 for 2010. Combined, the cuts total about 16 percent of the city's budget.

The city already has cut at least 5 percent from many city services, equipment purchases have been delayed, and Hill said the new cuts, if enacted, may require layoffs. He estimated that additional cuts approaching $300,000 might require laying off six of the city's 37 full-time workers.

That money can't be made up with local taxes. City property taxes account for about $360,000 of the city's general fund budget and there is a cap on how much cities can tax.

Hill, like other governmental administrators, are worried that the slash-and-burn approach to local budgets won't end there. Stevens County Coordinator Jim Thoreen has repeatedly warned that local aid might disappear completely in coming years as the state deals with a projected deficit of more than $5 billion over the upcoming two years. Hill said that would devastate cities such as Morris.

"You just have to do the math," he said. "If your budget is $3.4 million and you lose $2.3 million, you have enough money to run the police department and you lose everything else."

That means the city would have to stop funding services such as the public library, community education, economic development and other functions, and that capital purchases for equipment would be curtailed significantly.

"A lot of what we do is done with state money," he said.

Many richer cities in Minnesota do not receive LGA. But smaller communities don't have the tax base to support the ever-rising cost of providing basic services such as public safety. That may, in part, explain why administrators in smaller communities believe lawmakers and the governor don't comprehend the scope of the problems.

"In our case, (state aid) is not extra money," Hill said. "It's the only money."

That's why Hill and other city officials are perplexed by the public's seeming lack of outrage when cuts of the magnitude proposed by the governor are presented as a baseline for negotiations.

"The time is going to come when we're going to be in a whole world of hurt," Hill said, "and it's not going to be fun."