By Don Davis
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - Cities across Minnesota launched a public relations campaign to save state aid they receive, saying proposed budget cuts would cost police, fire and library jobs.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who wants to reduce those payments, says that cities could save some of those jobs by firing their lobbyists, such as those who organized the Web site.
The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and St. Paul officials late last week announced establishment of a Web site and a statewide media tour to promote local government aid.
"Less services and more property taxes" is how Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden termed results of Pawlenty's proposed cuts, a common refrain in recent weeks among city leaders.
The new development was a concerted public relations campaign to sell Minnesotans on the importance of local aids.
Pawlenty's proposal for the next two-year budget cycle calls for a 25 percent cut in local government aid paid to cities. But that reduction could go deeper after a report scheduled for Tuesday that is expected to show the deficit has grown from nearly $5 billion to about $7 billion out of a $33 billion state budget. Pawlenty plans to rework his budget based on Tuesday's report.
The Republican governor showed irritation at cities' call for smaller - or no - aid cuts. He turned the tables on them, saying they pay too much for lobbyists in the state Capitol.
"The first thing I would suggest that cities and counties do to save money in the budget is to fire their lobbyists to create space in their budget so they can save more police and fire personnel in their cities," an animated Pawlenty said. "The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is a big, expensive lobbying organization and the dues that are going into that organization to pay their lobbyists come from the city budgets, which in turn come from the taxpayers.
"So I would propose that all cities fire their lobbyists and dismantle the Coalition of Greater Minnesota cities and put more fire and policemen on the streets."
Pawlenty's comments did not sit well with city leaders.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, frequently mentioned as a potential governor candidate, said his city's two lobbyists keep track of legislation affecting the city.
Wolden said his city pays the coalition $6,000 annually and could not follow legislation without help.
About 60 cities outside of the Twin Cities belong to the coalition.
Coleman and Wolden appeared at a Friday Capitol news conference, backed by dozens of St. Paul firefighters, police officers and prosecutors.
"We can't get out of this by cuts alone," Wolden said of the state budget deficit, but he and Coleman refused to suggest a method for maintaining city aid payments at current levels.
However, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders gave their strongest hints yet that they lean toward raising taxes on the richest Minnesotans. While not endorsing a tax increase, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said that during recent legislative hearings across the state people are concerned some people do not pay enough taxes.
Mayors said they will be forced to lay off employees if Pawlenty's proposed cuts pass the Legislature - actions already being taken in some cases.
Willmar Mayor Les Heitke said his community already has cut its Fire Department from 42 to 33 firefighters because "that's all we can afford." The city also cannot afford a full-time manager for its new airport, the mayor added, which he called an unsafe situation.
Heitke said that Marshall, in southwestern Minnesota, would lose about $1 million in local aids under Pawlenty's plan, a little more than would be lost by Minnetonka, a much larger Twin Cities suburb.
"Where is the equality, where is the fairness?" he asked.
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