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Dayton sides with mayors on state aid need

Photo by Don Davis Gov. Mark Dayton tells Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden Wednesday that he understands state aid for cities is important, especially to help cities like Wadena deal with natural disasters.

No one argued over the need to continue state city aid during a Wednesday meeting of Minnesota mayors and Gov. Mark Dayton, but it will be a different story when Republicans who control the Legislature write their budget.

Republicans are expected to release an outline of their budget plan today and it could look like an earlier budget bill they offered that held Local Government Aid at the 2010 level, which is lower than what cities earlier were told to expect. LGA is the largest local aid from the state.

Democrat Dayton vetoed that earlier bill. His own budget would send about $2 billion to local governments in various programs and other $1 billion in tax credits that the administration says can hold down local property taxes.

Long-time mayors said they do not remember a mayor-governor meeting over state aid to local governments like occurred in the Capitol Wednesday. While Dayton and mayors agree on the importance of state payments, mayors said it is important to reinforce the Democrat governor's feelings and provide him with arguments as he and Republicans enter budget negotiations later this spring.

Republicans say cities and other local governments must take their own cuts as the state fills a $5 billion deficit.

"We've already done our share to help with the (state) budget," Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski told Dayton, referring to Local Government Aid and other state cutbacks since 2003.

Added Thief River Falls Mayor Steve Nordhagen, "Thief River Falls and other cities out there would not exist without Local Government Aid."

About 20 city officials delivered their message to a governor who wants LGA and other local government payments increased in the next two-year budget.

"More people need more services," Dayton said, and cities without big property tax bases must rely on state aid to help.

Talking to reporters after the meeting, Dayton said that LGA is a high priority of his, but said he and legislators must compromise as they negotiate the budget. He would not say whether he could accept lower local aid payments.

Looking at Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden, whose town sustained significant tornado damage last year, Dayton said that without state aid Wadena would not have had enough money to fund emergency needs.

And, he said, any community's local aid cuts equal a property tax increase as cities have nowhere else to turn to keep services intact.

"We think this is a critical time for the cities throughout the state," said Park Rapids Mayor Nancy Carroll, who as Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities president hosted Wednesday's meeting with Dayton.

The future of cities is at stake, she added.

Wolden said that LGA was 55 percent of his city's budget eight years ago, and now it is 45 percent.

This year shows the importance of state aid, he said. Wadena already has used 40 percent of its 2011 snow-plowing budget and an LGA cut would hamper snow removal later this year.

Wolden said he spent two hours with Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, and Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, recently, trying to convince them the importance of LGA.

"We have cut our budget 10 percent," he said was part of his message to lawmakers.

Like in other cities, Wadena streets have not been repaired as quickly as in the past, he added.

Fergus Falls Mayor Hal Leland told Dayton that even though his town does not adjoin North Dakota, just being close to the state line means it is hard to attract business. LGA cuts are hurting, he said.

"This cannot continue without devastating circumstances," Leland said.

In Bemidji, only slightly more than half of the property is taxable, Mayor Dave Larson said, with so much land owned by government. So the 31 percent LGA cuts since 2002 severely affect the city's budget.

If LGA were to end, Larson said, Bemidji property taxes would rise 79 percent to make up the difference.

Like other mayors, Larson said the city already has made cuts. The city's 100-person payroll has shrunk to 88, he said.

"Our needs are increasing, our resources are decreasing," Larson told Dayton.