Brooklyn Center is Exhibit A in aid cuts debate

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2009 - 9:34 PM

Brooklyn Center illustrates the complex debate over state aid -- and how much a city can cut before it hurts.

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In anticipation of aid cuts, Brooklyn Center stopped staffing its police department lobby outside of regular business hours. Police Chief School Bechthold said not many citizens came to the lobby anyway. But then this week, before regular hours, victims of a robbery ran to the station seeking help.

Photo: Elizabeth Florres, Star Tribune

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty has not singled out Brooklyn Center when he wonders aloud whether cities are doing enough to cut spending.

But in some ways, the first-ring Minneapolis suburb could serve as a prime exhibit of what the Republican governor said is a major problem as he considers another round of cuts in aid to cities to help balance the state budget through his controversial use of the "unallotment" process.

Too many cities, the governor has frequently pointed out, have large, untapped reserve funds and do not seem inclined to freeze salaries even as they complain about the effects of state aid cuts. When cities are asked how much they can cut, Pawlenty said, "the answer better not be zero."

Even after a $540,000 cut in state aid in December, Brooklyn Center had by April approved wage increases for its police unions, city manager and City Council. Even after those aid cuts, the city had a $7.7 million cash flow reserve, roughly equal to half of its total annual general fund budget.

Yet gauging how much the city, a suburb with a dying regional shopping mall and an up-and-down crime problem, can cut before it hurts may be harder than the governor and others contend.

Last year Brooklyn Center's budget reserve rose as high as $8 million at one point and dipped to $2 million at another, rising and falling based on property tax payments that flow to the city twice a year. State Auditor Rebecca Otto, a DFLer, said Pawlenty has oversimplified the purpose of a city's reserve fund, used for emergencies, to pay bills and to keep a city from having to borrow money. "I am frustrated with the rhetoric," said Otto, adding that Brooklyn Center's budget reserve "sounds reasonable, frankly."

In the 6 1/2 years that Pawlenty has been governor, Brooklyn Center's local government aid from the state has fallen from being 16.2 percent of its general fund budget to 7.2 percent. So far, the effect on residents has been subtle, a point the governor's supporters suggest means there has been room to make cuts.

But for every claim that the city has not been significantly affected by funding cutbacks, there is the reality that a summer concert series now celebrating its 25th year has just one-third of the concerts it had seven years ago and that it survives after losing its city financial backing only because of a $1,000 contribution from the local Lions Club.

Then, for every story that Brooklyn Center is not the city it once was, there is the perspective of people such as Tom Shinnick, a 48-year resident who has lived in the same house since the early 1960s. "It's still a good city to live in," he said. "Like everything, it's changed. ... We get the best snowplowing in the state."

Bracing for more cuts

A state analysis showed that Brooklyn Center was among the cities hardest hit by December's state aid cuts. Now the city is focusing on what happens next.

Last Monday, in anticipation of aid cuts that it fears may be coming when Pawlenty moves to balance the new two-year budget that begins in July, Brooklyn Center stopped keeping its police department lobby staffed outside of regular weekday business hours and laid off seven part-time employees. Though that is the most eye-opening of $814,000 in cuts the city is considering, Police Chief Scott Bechthold said few citizens came to the lobby anyway, especially on weekends.

Only this week, however, the change in hours came into play. Police said robbers broke into an apartment across from the police station early Monday. At around 6 in the morning, one victim ran to the police station, where the lobby is no longer staffed at that hour, but still managed to get help.

Other cuts include suspending a deer management program and a similar initiative to thin out wild geese in the city. Curt Boganey, Brooklyn Center's three-year city manager, has cut his office's out-of-town trips in half. The engineering department saved $8,600 by deleting its laptop computer order.

"I'm reluctant to ... say the sky is falling," said Mark Yelich, a City Council member who questioned raising city worker salaries because of the economy but ultimately joined in a unanimous vote to do so in February. "I think we're going to get through 2009 OK ... it's forcing people to reevaluate their financial priorities."

That should include freezing city salaries, said Yelich. "As the governor pointed out ... we all need to share the burden," he said.

But Boganey, along with Mayor Tim Willson, said Brooklyn Center is getting close to a tipping point -- a time when more cuts will jeopardize fundamental city services such as police and fire, regardless of whether there is a salary freeze. "Sixty percent of our budget is public safety," said Willson, who said city property taxes have been increased in each of his three years as mayor. He said that he has already talked to the city's labor leaders and that they informally acknowledged that "yes, we understand and yeah, we'll go with you" should salary freezes be discussed.

Chips in the image

A new survey of city residents, completed this year, showed a city still held in generally high esteem. While 62 percent of the households surveyed said they were facing financial stress personally, 65 percent rate the city's quality of life as good or excellent. Sixty-five percent said they felt safe walking alone in their neighborhoods at night.

The same survey, however, also showed cracks in the city's image. Pointing to the sight of the mostly empty Brookdale regional shopping mall, 58 percent viewed the city's redevelopment negatively. Forty percent see rising crime as the city's biggest issue, and 46 percent said there are areas in Brooklyn Center where they do not feel safe.

In a sign of the pressures the city may face if more budget cuts are needed, 55 percent said they would oppose increasing property taxes to maintain service levels, and a majority said the city should focus first on reducing waste.

Sue LaCrosse has seen at a grass-roots level how budget cuts can affect the life of a city in ways many others do not yet see. Seven years ago, said LaCrosse, a recreation department supervisor, the summer playground program was free and drew many more children. Now, she said, parents are charged $42 per child to enroll, and the program was cut from four to two days a week. Enrollment, she added, has shrunk to barely a dozen children.

"In all fairness to our city, we've really been able to do a lot with less," she said. "There's a few things that just totally got eliminated, and that's that."

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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