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Pawlenty creates task force to study regional fire service

Gov. Tim Pawlenty late Friday created through executive order a task force to study shared fire and rescue service delivery.

The move comes perhaps in response to a $1.2 billion state budget deficit and that he may eye taking some of the $400 million slated to go out to cities and counties at the end of the month.

City officials, already the target of several gubernatorial unallotments, say taking additional state aid will affect how they can deliver fire and police services, or force raising property taxes.

Two mayors - St. Paul Mayor Wayne Wolden and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman - on Friday called for an immediate special legislative session to consider the $1.2 billion budget deficit.

"Minnesota cities are so close to the financial edge that any reduction in the December funding will spell disaster in the form of closed libraries, deeper cuts to police and fire protection and a sharp reduction in critical services, like winter snowplowing," said Coleman and Wolden, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

"A special session is the only reasonable, rational and responsible option. There has never been a greater time for state leaders to drop political slogans and petty disagreements and come together to address the long-term financial needs of our state," they said.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung told The Associated Press a special session is not happening and the governor hopes lawmakers use the next two months preparing for a fast start to the 2010 session in February.

Instead, the Republican governor issued an executive order "to investigate issues and the comparative benefit attendant to different models for shared fire and rescue service delivery."

The task force consists of at least 11 members to include two fire chiefs from existing fire and rescue shared service districts and representatives of state fire chief and fire department associations, League of Minnesota Cities, Association of Minnesota Counties and Minnesota Association of Townships.

"While this vital public safety function is performed by local governments, considerable potential exists for increased efficiency, effectiveness and cost-savings by voluntary and cooperative shared services models," states Pawlenty's executive order.

The task force is to report by Dec. 31, 2010, on governance of regional fire and rescue shared services districts that takes into account geographic area, population and density. It also is to suggest funding sources for operations, efficiency and effectiveness of emergency response and employment issues.

Some northern Minnesota lawmakers believe a number of options will have to be used to solve the budget deficit, including new revenues. Pawlenty, however, wants legislators to again cut spending. He unallotted $2.7 billion in current biennium spending instead of signing a bill for a tax increase.

"I really don't know now how we're going to do it," Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said Thursday in an interview while attending a Department of Natural Resources meeting at Lake Itasca.

"Our biggest problem ... is that we have so many folks in the Legislature running for governor, there's so much pressure on those folks for them to make a certain decision to influence their future as a gubernatorial candidate," Howes said. "That's going to get in our way before anything else does."

The state budget must be balanced, he said. "We have a little bit of time to decide how, but not a lot of time."

The bigger problem to Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, is the $5.4 billion budget deficit predicted for the following biennium, a sign of true structural unbalance.

"I do think that the elections are going to play a role, as there is less of a stomach for doing some of the more difficult things to address the long-term budget problems," said Eken, also in an interview at Lake Itasca.

Eken says he's concerned about "kicking things down the road to the next biennium, patching it up just so we get through with shifting the problem out to the next biennium."

The Legislature tried last year by sending the governor a bill with tax increase but proving a balanced budget four years out, a bill he vetoed, Eken said.

"It wouldn't in one fell swoop take care of this big structural deficit problem but it was a step in that direction," he said. "It's so big, it will take multiple sessions to really fix it."

The Legislature must address a structural budget deficit problem, he said, "and that will require everything being on the table, not just cuts but revenue increases, taxes, as well."

The House Republican Caucus will not vote for tax increases, says Howes. "But we're even seeing that on the DFL side, a little bit. ... Even on the Democrat side, until you get closer to the election, they're not going to talk a lot about raising taxes."

"But it's going to have to be raised eventually," said Eken. "But prospects for that this session are slim."

If Pawlenty unallots Local Government Aid, that's raising taxes at the local level, Eken adds. "It's more an issue of where the taxes should be raised and on who than it is whether they should be raised."

Cutting LGA hits rural areas harder, he said, and middle and lower income people harder. "I'd rather do it at the state level,"

But Howes said there is some room in local government spending, citing his own Cass County which has prepared for a loss of state aid. Howes said his property taxes went down 8 percent.

"They are prepared, they are ready, they've done the work," Howes said. "It's spotty, there are areas of the state that are doing better."

In a statement, Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, said the $1.2 billion deficit continues a trend that has been seen in the past several economic forecasts.

"Economic experts keep telling us that our budget deficits are the result a revenue shortage," said Sailer. "Not only are thousands of Minnesotans out of work, but many of those still working are making less. Clearly, the No. 1 reason for our revenue shortage is that too many Minnesotans are out of work."

Efforts made at the state and federal levels helped keep the current recession from becoming a depression and have recently showed signs of improving Minnesota's economy, said Sailer. A larger bonding bill will be on the table this session as lawmakers work to pinpoint projects that will quickly create jobs and spur needed economic growth.

"Our bonding bill will focus on those projects that can quickly create new jobs and strengthen our infrastructure to help our state grow in the future," said Sailer, noting regional bonding projects including finishing the work on the Red Lake high school and middle school facilities.

"There is no single solution to solve this budget crisis," said Sailer. "Cuts alone kill jobs and leave families and businesses with less money to spend -- we must work toward a balanced solution. ... We have to get off the budget roller-coaster of the past few years and get serious about long-term, stable state budgeting. We have to consider every available option and we need to do it now, because putting off the hard decisions just makes things worse."