Cities try to protect police and fire from budget cutsby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
Next week, Gov. Pawlenty will release his budget to solve a multi-billion dollar deficit. He's said he'll slash local government aid, and cities are bracing for cuts. In White Bear Lake, not much, even public safety, will be immune from the belt-tightening.
White Bear Lake, Minn. — White Bear Lake is a quiet town, and it's Lynn Tellers Bankes' job to make sure it stays that way. She's the police chief.
"We have 29 sworn officers, two office support staff and an office supervisor that is also in charge of our dispatch center," said Bankes, describing her department.
And while there are only about 16 cops available for patrol, the department is a big part of the city. It accounts for about 41 percent of the city budget.
It's White Bear Lake's biggest single expense, even if it's on the cheap.
Last week, for instance, two of the department's squads were out of service, one waiting for $5,000 worth of work and a new transmission. Another car is more than a decade old.
The department's detective supervisor position has been left vacant for five years. Bankes answers her own phone and sometimes drives her personal car to meetings.
"We're at the bare bones right now," said Bankes. "I don't have a secretary. I don't have an administrative assistant. My captains don't have anybody that does their paperwork. We do our own."
It could get worse.
In recent years, the city has received more than $2 million in Local Government Aid from the state each year. That's a little less than one-third of White Bear's general fund budget. The city has pinched the rest of its pennies to keep the street lights on, the snow plowed and the grass mowed.
But that state aid will likely be cut in Gov. Pawlenty's budget.
If the money for White Bear Lake was eliminated, and the City Council made up the difference, city taxes on a median valued $210,000 house would rise 60 percent.
That's only about $15 a month more, and the city already has some of the lowest taxes in the Twin Cities. White Bear Lake actually cut its city levy by about 8 percent this year.
Mayor Paul Auger said the city is loathe to raise them again.
"It's trying economic times," said Auger. "Everybody's going to be looking for ways to reduce taxes. And the only way to reduce taxes, when the sources are starting to dry up, is to make huge, significant cuts. So we have to be proactive and prepared for that."
At the police department, that may mean $130,000 worth of new cars may have to wait.
Beneath the fire department, the city's shooting range used to have a dirt floor, until the officers themselves poured a slab there as a weekend project. It's nothing but a basement room with targets clipped to the wall at one end.
But after an OSHA inspection, Bankes said she realized the city needed to make about $35,000 worth of improvements to comply with labor and environmental regulations, and to install modern technology.
"And that's just a basic upgrade, nothing fancy. Nothing like you see on television," said Bankes. "Just your basic shooting range, and I think we're going to have to put that off this year."
Upstairs, the fire department is in a similar situation. White Bear Lake has only five full-time fire employees, including the chief. The other 50 or so firefighters are volunteers.
Fire Chief Tim Vadnais said he hoped to put computers in the city's ambulances this year, like other emergency medical agencies have. He said that will have to wait, as well.
But public safety isn't just flashing lights and sirens, either.
City Manager Mark Sather said White Bear Lake and other cities may have to change their expectations for snow plowing in light of the state budget crisis. Some residential streets may stay snowier for longer.
Sather said White Bear Lake also may put off replacement of the city's tornado sirens.
"They're very old," Sather said. "They work, but we scheduled that [replacement] in 2009, and we're very likely going to have to postpone it. But we're not going to put anyone at risk that the sirens won't go off in the event of an emergency."
Mayor Paul Auger said those are the choices that have to be made, and they're easier than the alternatives.
"I don't think we've had a fully staffed police department the whole time I've been mayor, and it's been 14 years, I believe," Auger said. "Public safety -- and I agree with the governor on that one -- would be considered untouchable. I wouldn't threaten my public with anything like, 'We're going to lay off a couple of cops.' Because that's just unfair. We're going to have to find cuts elsewhere."
White Bear Lake and other cities will likely have to wait until May before they find out how tough their choices will be.
- All Things Considered, 01/22/2009, 5:50 p.m.