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Rushford council considers impact of aid cuts

Fri, Dec 26th, 2008
Posted in Government

Bitter gusts and subzero temperatures swirled outside the Rushford city hall Monday, December 22. But there were ill winds blowing inside the council chambers as well while those present absorbed the gloomy financial forecast.

Rumors had circulated that citizens planned to show up to protest at this second hearing of the 2009 city budget where staff proposed an 8% increase in the levy. But those citizens never materialized, maybe because of the weather, but likely because of Governor Pawlenty's announcement of specific, drastic cuts to Local Government Aid (LGA) to cities like Rushford.

The news seemed to cast the local budget issue into a slightly different light.

Like most cities with a population over 1,000, Rushford will experience a greater than 4% cut in total aid it was expecting for the current year.

"We've already lost $48,000 we were expecting this year," administrator Windy Block announced early in the meeting. "The question is what more we'll lose in 2009-2010."

To try to bring reality to the looming threat of future cuts, the staff had prepared a "what if" scenario, starting with what 2009 would look like with a 10% cut of $63,341. Most think a 10% cut is foolish to hope for, given the state's immense deficit, measured in the billions.

The staff figured that a 30% cut in 2009 would mean a loss of nearly $200,000 in LGA. Block says he's trying to be optimistic and hope for no more than a 20% future cut.

The meeting was punctuated by a lot of strained silence as many no doubt pondered what city services might need to be cut in the future, which jobs cut back, or even lost.

Laura Deering maintained her position that even with the new gloomy state financial picture, or maybe because of it, an 8% levy increase was just too much of a burden to impose on taxpayers at this time. She thought it was time for the council to make a statement by proposing a lower 6% levy.

Block repeated the math fact that both he and city clerk Kathy Zacher explained at the previous meeting: an 8% levy increase does not translate into an 8% tax increase for individuals, particularly with the unique situation of flood recovery in Rushford where the past few years have been anything but typical. With more and more businesses and homeowners coming back "online", the tax base increases and the burden is spread.

Not to go with the levy increase would seriously impair flood recovery and Rushford's future, in Block's opinion.

"We're already on a spiral of "not doing" projects because of the LGA reduction," he said. A less-than-adequate levy would further handicap services.

Councilwoman Nancy Benson agreed and said that while she'd really like to go with a lower 6% increase, she thinks "we'd be hurting ourselves."

"We can't depend on LGA," Benson said. "We're going to have to start taking care of our own." Benson supported the 8% increase with the agreement that the council "be good stewards of the dollars we have."

Robert Dahl motioned for the lower 6% increase, Deering seconded, and the motion passed with Dahl, Deering and Johnson voting in favor while Benson and mayor Les Ladewig voted opposed.

Block said the staff had, as requested, begun working on what a 6% increase would look like. Zacher said going from 8% to 6% will only mean a reduction of $12,020 from the budget. Staff recommends a cut in the tree budget and moving building and zoning inspection "in-house" to make up the funds.

Oh, deer!

Block reported on the deer concern. He was able to make contact with someone in the DNR from Winona who, he's been assured, is the "head deer man." Block said the official was helpful and has promised information will be forthcoming regarding Rushford's options in dealing with the abundance of four-legged, non-tax paying residents of town.

But before the DNR gets serious about offering Rushford options, Block says the same question is always asked: what steps has the town taken to curtail residents feeding the deer?

Boy Scout project

The council heard about a proposed project to improve the Rushford pool area by Kevin O'Donnell, R-P junior.

O'Donnell, an employee of the Aquatic Center and a Boy Scout, would like to remove the unsightly and unstable planter in front of the pool and replace it with benches on a concrete slab where young children can wait for their parents to pick them up.

The council was impressed and agreed to pay for one of the benches while O'Donnell supplies the other bench, labor and concrete.

Ambulance Increases

The council also approved a recommendation from Ambulance Director, Julie Ziebell to increase the cost of an ambulance ride from $375 to $425 in the service area. Out of area base rate will go to $550.

This will allow an increase in the minimal reimbursement that volunteer EMT's can be paid. According to Ziebell, Rushford EMT's have been reimbursed the same amount since 1971.

The increase will also help with the increased costs for medical supplies and fuel, Ziebell said.

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