People come out to make their voices heard

Published 4:29 pm Saturday, February 21, 2009

At least 200 people from south central Minnesota contributed idea after idea Friday about what to do concerning the projected state budget deficit.

In what was one of several town hall meetings to take place around the state this week, people associated with city and county governments, health and human services, education, long-term care, court and legal services, and other children and family services programs bore down on Albert Lea City Hall to share their opinions with a group of state legislators.

The legislators, from both the Minnesota Senate and the House of Representatives, came from across the state to listen to the opinions. Local legislators Sen. Dan Sparks and District 27A Rep. Robin Brown, both DFLers, were also on the panel.

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The Council Chambers were packed, with standing room only, and people overflowed into the hallways and front lobby where the meeting was being broadcast on the city’s government channel.

For two and a half hours, person after person spoke out about how Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget cuts — which would make up for the projected $4.8 billion state deficit — and how it would impact their services and programs, especially during a time of economic distress and an actual increased need for services in many areas.

Many made requests to decrease some of the projected cuts, and some even gave proposed solutions.

Before testimony was taken, a summary of the budget was given to the audience. The presentation stated that the governor’s budget specifically proposes to cut $1.45 billion in health and human services, $1.3 million in K-12 education shifts, $973 million in appropriation bonds, $920 million in federal stimulus funds, $468 million in local government aid, $313 million in higher education funding, $185 million in other spending cuts and $55 million in fees and payment changes. A majority of the audience members knew specifics about how those reductions would affect their entities.

In response to those numbers, people signed up to speak about a specific topic they were directly affected by or were passionate about.

Cities and counties

In what was the first testimony of the meeting, Albert Lea City Manager Victoria Simonsen explained the challenges that Albert Lea is facing with projected local government aid cuts.

Simonsen said Albert Lea is a regional center for south central Minnesota and Iowa, and it’s important the city offers an appearance that’s representative of the state.

Local government aid pays for parks, street repair, police and other basic services citizens expect to have, she said. Though the city has expanded in square footage in recent years, the city has fewer employees.

“The ability to pay for services has diminished, but the need for services has not,” Simonsen said.

The city has made adjustments to staffing, implemented hiring stalls and put together a citizen group to figure out what services they can live without in response to the December unallotment in local government aid, she said.

She explained what the equivalent of the 2009 cuts would be in terms of services, and said that a significant reduction in local government aid would take Albert Lea out of competition for jobs with neighboring communities and other states.

Albert Lea Economic Development Agency Director Dan Dorman said he worries about being competitive with Iowa and Wisconsin.

A reduction of local government aid will not only affect homeowners but business owners too. The best way a city can become less dependent on local government aid is to grow tax base.

Austin City Administrator Jim Hurm expressed a similar sentiment as Simonsen and Dorman.

He said the proposed 2009 local government aid cuts alone are the equivalent of the entire budget of the city’s fire department, more than the entire budget of the library, half of the police department, and equal to half of the budget of the entire parks and recreation department.

Cuts will “clearly” affect the services Austin can provide, he said.

Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said county governments are in essence supposed to be an arm of the state government, but he’s worried about the impact on county program aid. He said Mower County is looking at a $1.15 million cut on top of unallotment in 2008.

He talked of program cuts and even employee reductions. He said once levy limits are lifted, Mower County residents could end up seeing a double digit tax increase.

Oscarson said he’s worried about core services. He said Mower County is considering moving to a four-day work week. This could save between $50,000 and $75,000.

Health care

Steve Waldhoff, Albert Lea Medical Center chief administrative officer, said rural health care providers such as ALMC and the Austin Medical Center are economic engines that greatly impact a community.

ALMC is the largest employer in Albert Lea with 1,100 people on staff, he said.

“It can be said that rural health care providers are the cornerstone for economic development,” Waldhoff said. They attract business to the state.

He said while the medical center is willing to accept its fair share of budget cuts, he thinks Pawlenty’s budget disproportionately targets health care. He encouraged the legislators to include hospital leaders in crafting budget solutions.

AMC chief administrative officer Adam Rees said the governor’s proposed budget would have a “devastating impact on Austin Medical Center with a $4.7 million cut.

Others talked about the effects of cutting Minnesota Care benefits and basic dental care.

Children and families

Patty Kimball, a volunteer advocate for the Freeborn County Crime Victims Crisis Center, asked the legislators not to cut funds for programs that offer assistance to people on the front lines of crime and tragedy.

“These people suffer severely and we are there to help them,” Kimball said.

Other representatives, including the daycare licensor for Freeborn County, a Freeborn County child protection worker, the Parenting Resource Center executive director, the assistant director for the Southeastern Libraries Cooperating/Southeast Library System and representatives from Semcac spoke out about saving money for their programs and services as well.

Semcac representatives talked about the increased need for the services that their organization provides, noting how different organizations in the community have pulled together to meet that need.

Long-term care

People who spoke out during the long-term care portion of the testimony talked about how they think long-term care plays a vital role in the economy.

Mark Anderson, administrator of Good Samaritan Society of Albert Lea said there are 142,000 jobs in the long-term care realm in the state. In Albert Lea alone, there are three long-term care facilities that serve about 359 Minnesotans and employ about 700 people.

He talked about the cost a resident pays per day to stay in a nursing care facility and the cost staff get paid to work there.

He said he knows now is not the time to ask for additional funding for long-term care but he hopes the state doesn’t “take away what’s already a crippled situation.”


Teachers and educators from both different school systems and from Riverland Community College came to share their opinions of the state budget.

Terrence Leas, president of Riverland Community College, of how higher education serves the public good.

Leas said with tens of thousands of people in the state having lost jobs, people are looking to be retrained. Riverland has already begun meeting with dislocated workers, working closely with the Minnesota Workforce Center.

Wayne Olson, a high school teacher of more than 25 years, said over the years schools have been asked to do more with less, while at the same time dealing with larger class sizes, more needy children and programs that need to be taught.

Olson said it seems like just a dollar a day from taxpayers would eliminate quite a few of the cuts that are being proposed.

Human services

Representatives who spoke out in favor of human services programs thrughout the area talked about a concern about cuts to the mentally ill and other vulnerable adults.

Freeborn County Director of Human Services Brian Buhmann said the state is in a budget deficit that isn’t caused by overspending.

“You talk to city and county officials and we’ll tell you we’re fiscally conservative,” Buhmann said.

And it’s a challenge to have a smaller piece of the state budget, while yet providing more and more services, he said.

He asked that legislators take great care not to eliminate the basic infrastructure of human services.


Attorneys and public defenders from the area talked about having an increased case load and how important it is for people to have representation in court.

They pointed out how the judiciary system is the third branch of government. During bad economic times such as with increases in unemployment, the civil and criminal caseloads increase.