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Officials from across state say all cities to suffer from LGA decision

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota city leaders say they have trimmed spending gently for the past six years, with the public feeling little impact, but those days may be over.

With $44 million being trimmed from state aid cities expected this year and more than $100 million next year, mayors, council members and city administrators said the public soon will begin to feel the cuts. Officials attending the annual Minnesota League of Cities conference in downtown St. Paul fear every city service is at risk, even public safety.

The national recession forced state officials to make a variety of cuts in their budgets. But since the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty this year did not agree on an overall budget, the governor on Wednesday will announce plans to cut $2.7 billion out of the two-year, $31 billion budget that begins that day.

Among cuts Pawlenty plans, unless he changes his mind in the next few days, will be state payments to cities, counties and townships. The local government aid program, which helps cities, would be one of the biggest cuts Pawlenty makes.

City officials say the $44 million 2009 cut is manageable.

But more than twice that amount will be cut from their expected state payments in 2010, Pawlenty said. City leaders say that will be more difficult for them.

Pawlenty often says cities have enough places to cut that they can keep police and fire protection as is. That is not how many city leaders see things.

"We have made things so lean, now we do have to look at public safety," Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said.

Willmar Mayor Lester Heitke said that his city has a hiring freeze, but a just-announced detective resignation could be an exception. The police chief will talk to the council and mayor about the resignation in coming days, and city leaders will decide whether to fill the job.

But the Willmar Fire Department will not be rebuilt to its former level. Fourteen firefighters recently retired and just six were hired to replace them, the mayor said. He and council members will look at if they need to find more firefighters later this year, but will not replace all 14.

Like most cities, Heitke said, Willmar is holding opening vacant positions and buying less as ways to save money.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.