White Bear Lake copes with the pinch of Pawlenty's unallotment

City Hall
At City Hall, White Bear Lake officials have no plans for layoffs or cuts to essential services in response to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to cut about $722,000 in local government aid to the city over the next two fiscal years. But residents may notice a change in quality-of-life services, such as snow plowing.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Like many cities, White Bear Lake will feel a slight pinch from Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to cut $2.7 billion out of the state budget. The reductions will likely mean less frequent snow plowing on residential streets and other inconveniences, but no significant cuts to essential services.

Minnesota Public Radio News featured the East Metro suburb in January for a series called "The State Budget in Your Backyard." Five months later, MPR revisited key institutions in the town to see how the cuts would play out.

In the suburban city about 20 minutes north of St. Paul, City Administrator Mark Sather tends to work in fairy-tale references when talking about the budget mess facing city leaders.

"We're not Rumpelstiltskin. We can't weave gold at night," he said.

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But city officials could prepare for this moment, and that's what they did. Faced with a reduction of $722,000 in state aid over the next couple of years, the city of White Bear Lake will draw from its so-called rainy-day fund to keep it afloat.

Which brings Sather to the tale of the Three Little Pigs.

"When the times were good, we set money aside and built a brick house," Sather said. "We could have built a house of straw, but we built the house of brick, and it's paid off for us."

"The focus will be more on safety and less on convenience."

Sather isn't happy about the cuts, which he describes as significant. But he doesn't anticipate layoffs or critical cuts in public safety and other essential services.

The governor's plan reduces aid to cities by $192 million. That's far less than the $282 million hit that Pawlenty first suggested.

Still, Sather said the belt-tightening will result in more unfilled jobs at City Hall, and the postponement of technical upgrades, such as new software.

In some cases, residents will notice a difference. For example, you might see a few more dandelions in White Bear Lake parks as city workers cut back on weed spraying. Sather said come winter, residents might have to wait longer for the snow to get plowed.

"The focus will be more on safety and less on convenience," he said. "You know, that difference between plowing snow when it's three inches on a Sunday, or waiting until Monday to do it. People say, 'I can get through, and I have to drive a little slower because they haven't been salting and sanding, but the streets are still safe.'"

Officials actually cut the city levy this year, but could decide to raise property taxes for next year.

At the one community college in town, Century College acting president John O'Brien has a different metaphor to describe the cash crunch facing higher education. He said if Century were a ship, you could say it has weathered the storm, and didn't capsize.

"[But] rather than breathe a sigh of relief, we're looking around and we're noticing that we seem to be pulled sort of toward a waterfall," O'Brien said. "And for us, that waterfall is 2012."

That's the fiscal year when federal stimulus money goes away, so colleges and universities won't be able to use those dollars to buy down tuition.

Under Pawlenty's plan, Minnesota's higher education funding will take a cut of $100 million, but not until next year. Under that plan, Century would expect to lose nearly $1.8 million. Its operating budget is about $60 million.

O'Brien said Century's conservative spending over the past year will help the school stay on track in the near future. But he said the community college is being asked to do more with less while the school is growing. Enrollment has gone up 50 percent over the past decade.

O'Brien said the college has become a magnet for people who want to go back to school after losing their jobs in this economy.

"Now, more than ever, we have dislocated workers coming to us," he said. "And that's what's really hard. We're a community college. The community's hurting now, and they're turning to us, and we're dealing with less resources. That's the pain for us."

Over at White Bear Lake's only nursing home, Cerenity Senior Care, the governor's cuts mean workers won't get a raise this year or next, because the governor's plan essentially freezes the rates that the state pays to nursing homes that accept Medicaid patients. It comes at a time when nursing homes are worried about losing potential hires to hospitals who can afford to pay more.

"There's a possibility of turnover if people can find an opportunity for more pay," said Greg Baumberger, who runs the center.

Public schools in White Bear Lake are in a relatively good position. The district can rely on its reserves, and won't have to borrow money over the next year, to make up for a delay in state payments.

While White Bear Lake seems able to weather the governor's plan, that's not the case in many Minnesota communities, where some mayors predict the cuts will lead to higher property taxes and cuts to public safety.