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Les Heitke, mayor of Willmar, center, voices his concerns about his city's finances during a news conference with group of local mayors at the Willmar Fire Hall. They voiced concerns about cuts to Local Government Aid. Flanking Heitke are former legislator Dan Dorman of Albert Lea, left, and Chris Coleman, St. Paul mayor. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)
Les Heitke, mayor of Willmar, center, voices his concerns about his city's finances during a news conference with group of local mayors at the Willmar Fire Hall. They voiced concerns about cuts to Local Government Aid. Flanking Heitke are former legislator Dan Dorman of Albert Lea, left, and Chris Coleman, St. Paul mayor. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Heitke criticizes Pawlenty for 'hogwash' remark

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news Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Willmar Mayor Les Heitke says he disagrees with Gov. Tim Pawlenty who said Thursday that local officials are talking "hogwash'' if they claim their cities can't absorb further state aid cuts to help balance the state's budget.

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"I think it's easy to shout that out for a sound bite. But ... here in Minnesota, we have 854 cities and over 600 of those cities have a population that is less than 2,500 people,'' Heitke said.

"The reduction in Local Government Aid is critical to many of these small communities in outstate Minnesota. We need to work together to help the governor understand that by cutting aid, he is really cutting into the fabric of many of these small communities,'' Heitke said.

He was joined by three other mayors and a former legislator at a Friday afternoon news conference in Willmar in a bipartisan effort launched by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities to protect LGA from the budget reduction process known as unallotment.

Reaching no deal with the Legislature, Pawlenty has stated he will balance the state's budget by reducing funding for any state program by whatever amount he deems appropriate starting July 1. Pawlenty originally proposed cutting LGA by $246 million over the next two years.

Heitke said such a reduction would cut Willmar's LGA by an estimated $400,000 after July 1, 2009, and by up to $800,000 or more after July 1, 2010.

By comparison, Heitke and the City Council allotted $749,447 for fire protection in this year's $20.8 million budget.

Heitke said Willmar has a hiring freeze, unless a position is absolutely critical. But the city will forgo certain equipment purchases, and reduce contributions to Meals on Wheels, the Humane Society and volunteer groups such as the baseball boosters to absorb the proposed cuts.

Heitke urged the governor to cut LGA by the $85 million proposed by the House, but based on a method that would spread the reductions more fairly among the cities.

He said cities have already done more than their fair share in helping the state balance its budget by taking a $54 million LGA cut as part of the governor's December 2008 unallotment.

Former Republican legislator Dan Dorman of Albert Lea said most cities will either see a dramatic increase in property taxes or a dramatic decrease in services if LGA cuts go through.

"It isn't as simple as just go cut the fat. We went through the first major LGA reduction in 2003. We just started recovering from that when the unallotment happened at the end of 2008,'' said Dorman.

"Our message on a bipartisan basis to the governor is we understand that LGA is going to see some reductions. If they're closer to the House numbers, it's something cities can probably live with. But numbers toward what he first suggested are going to be very detrimental to our quality of life one way or the other in greater Minnesota,'' said Dorman.

Benson Mayor Paul Kittelson said he favored the House version. Kittelson said his city has taken cuts since 2004. He said city staff have been cut by one-third to one-half, and replacement of old infrastructure is on hold.

"We've long since gotten rid of the fat. We're deep into the muscle,'' said Kittelson.

Spicer Mayor Denny Baker said he's been in office only five months. While campaigning last fall, he said residents told him not to raise their property taxes.

"Well, what are we going to do? They want services. We need to supply those and if the state's going to take a bite again, then we're back in the same position,'' said Baker. He supports the idea of leaving LGA alone or as close as possible to where it is.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said Minnesotans need a "real conversation about where we want to go as a state, what are the things that we value, what services that we think are critically important. You're not going to get there by just having a great-taste-less-filling debate, allow more taxes or less taxes. Let's have a conversation about what it is that makes Minnesota great.''

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