Bemidji a poster child for LGA use
Gov. Tim Pawlenty picked the wrong city to make his stand on excessive use of Local Government Aid.
Beginning over a week ago on his weekly Friday morning radio show, the governor placed a shot across the bow intimating that Bemidji. "a government town," raised property taxes higher than he unallotted LGA, and that public employees here received raises and more benefits than the struggling private sector. Mayor Richard Lehmann eloquently responded to those charges, denying them all. But then the governor used his Friday radio show again last week to further explain his displeasure with Bemidji.
The city raised property taxes by millions of dollars -- 200 percent -- in the 2000s, while losing only hundreds of thousands of LGA. Further, the city's budget is half state aid or better, which he says is wrong. LGA should only go to the poorest and smallest of cities, and LGA should consist of no more than 30 percent of the city budget.
That may sound good to taxpayers who wouldn't pay a dime to help anyone else, but there's a reason state aid is such a large part of the city budget -- there is a lack of taxable property to provide the services necessary for a growing regional center. Besides being the county seat and having public buildings grace the north end of the downtown, the Bemidji State University campus is a huge non-taxable property. Very welcome, but nonetheless a tax freeloader. Add in the airport and North Country Regional Hospital (which is treated as a not-for-profit) and the generally low assessed values of properties here and no major industry, and the city is dealing with a huge hole when it comes to taxable properties.
Also, wise or unwise, the City Council through most of the 1990s decided to hold the line on property taxes and not even account for inflation. Those days caught up, and that's the double-digit increases the governor sees now in the 2000s -- plus having to make up for lost LGA.
Bemidji is actually a poster child for the high level of LGA it should receive. The wealth lies in the surrounding townships, which Bemidji's taxes can't reach, but whose people regularly make use of city services and amenities. If anything, there should be special state aid sent to regional centers such as Bemidji that provide many more services than the city-between-the-borders population would demand in a non-regional city.
The governor is right to hunt out waste in LGA -- there are some cities that perhaps don't need it -- but to draw a broad swath across all cities and say they don't need it is wrong. He has spared the smallest cities from aid cuts, as they do need the support, but there are other cities that show signs of strain such as Bemidji.
No, Gov. Pawlenty, you picked the wrong city to use as an example. -- Bemidji Pioneer