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Plea to legislators: 'Don't cut funding'

Mayor Nancy Carroll testified to a panel of 15 legislators about the importance of Local Government Aid to the city of Park Rapids. She was one of about 70 people to speak at a listening session in Bemidji Friday. (Photos by Anna Erickson / Enterprise)1 / 2
Minnesota House Ways and Means Chairman Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, presides over a legislative town hall forum Friday on the Bemidji State University campus while at right Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, visits with Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids. Some 70 people gave testimony on state budget priorities to a standing-room-only crowd in the American Indian Resource Center.2 / 2

Park Rapids representatives pleaded for Local Government Aid, arts funding and preserving health insurance at a legislative listening session on state budget priorities Friday in Bemidji.

It was standing room only at the American Indian Resource Center's Great Hall at Bemidji State University. More than 250 people were crammed in. A panel of 15 legislators heard from about 70 people over two hours. Those who testified were limited to 90 seconds.

The state is facing a potential $7 billion deficit during the next biennium.

Mayor Nancy Carroll spoke for the city of Park Rapids.

"I am here to address Local Government Aid (LGA) cuts," she said. "We in Park Rapids ... are fiscal conservatives but the hundreds of thousands of dollars proposed to be cut from our Local Government Aid, it's hitting us at a time when we're also seeing reductions in the property taxes that are being collected."

It's a double whammy, Carroll said.

"Lower LGA payments and fewer - to the hundreds of thousands of dollars less - in property taxes that are coming in. ... We have tried to cut, we will continue to cut," she said.

Park Rapids doesn't have a large staff - about 25 employees, Carroll said.

"If we were to only ... cut staff we would be talking about an additional four members of our staff being cut, next year it would be another four, four and a half," she said.

The city doesn't have many other areas to cut, Carroll said.

"We don't have any recreational programs to cut. We partner as much as we can," she said.

Also representing Park Rapids was Paul Dove, chair of the Park Rapids Lakes Area Arts Council.

"It's not only cutting funding that is a concern but the proposed elimination of the state arts board as a government function," he said. "In the times of economic problems it seems that the arts and humanities have to go on the defensive."

He noted that the first cuts in the school system when budgets are tight are the arts.

"As a music educator, I thought that the people who went into the music programs in schools were better students," Dove said. "But research in music education says 'no,' it is that music and the arts have made these students better."

In northern Minnesota there is a lot of interest in the arts and programs should continue to be available, he said.

Healthcare was also addressed for Park Rapids.

St. Joseph's Area Health Services president/CEO Ben Koppelman testified about his concerns about proposed cuts to the hospital.

"Every day people come into the hospital seeking care and services who have difficulty meeting deductibles," he said. "In these tough economic times, more and more Minnesotans are becoming unemployed and the need for these programs only increases."

People won't stop being sick, Koppelman said. They might end up in the emergency room, which would cost more, he added.

"I would urge you to continue to protect MinnesotaCare," he said.

A wide variety of people testified representing different groups across northern Minnesota. Many people said that although it's unpopular, it might be time to raise income taxes.

Legislative hearings were scheduled in the metro area this week.

"We're getting a lot of feedback - feedback about what people value as a priority," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said in an interview. "We're hearing a lot about education, both K-12 and higher ed, a ton about health care and how people are quite concerned about the governor's proposal."

Kelliher said people have been articulate in conveying their needs. "They want a budget that they feel is equitable and fair. It's pretty clear that people are also pretty interested in making sure there is a balanced approach in solving this very large budget deficit."

And balance will come with spending cuts coupled with tax increases, admits Kelliher, setting up the battlefront between the DFL-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Pawlenty.

"Everyone understands there's going to be cuts," she said. "I think it's a question of fairness of cuts. ... The governor includes significant revenue in his budget through an appropriation bond, so I think he's admitted there needs to be some for of revenue."

Bemidji Pioneer reporter Brad Swenson contributed to this report.