by CHRIS ROGERS
When local government is at its best, citizens can make a big impact on the direction of their community. But lawmakers in St. Paul have major influence, too, controlling funding on which municipalities and schools back in Winona County rely. Minnesota’s newly approved 2020-2021 budget brought some good news and some disappointment for Winona-area local governments.
“It’s huge,” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said when asked how significant the extra $150,000 Winona is slated to receive from the state next year in form of local government aid (LGA) is. The extra $150,000 for Winona is a 1.5-percent increase over the city’s current $9.9-million allocation and a small sum compared to the city’s $48.5-million total budget, but it is enough to make a significant difference at the West Fire Station.
Because of budget constraints, Winona’s West Broadway fire station has been operating with just two firefighters per shift instead of the normal three. Sarvi plans to use the extra LGA funds to hire another firefighter so that at least one of the station’s shifts can have a full three-person crew. “When two firefighters roll up on a scene, there’s not too much they can do right away, just the two of them,” Sarvi said. He explained safety protocols require a minimum of three firefighters to search burning buildings for survivors. That means trapped survivors might have to wait for backup to arrive from the Central Fire Station across town. As Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle told Governor Tim Walz (DFL) in April, “Bottomline: any increase in LGA would substantially make the city of Winona safer … that money will go to provide a safety net for the citizens of Winona.”
The West Fire Station has three different shifts, and the $150,000 is not enough to increase staffing on all three — a total cost of $300,000. However, Sarvi said the city is committed to hiring one new firefighter each year for the next three years until all shifts are at full strength. Where the rest of the funding would come from has yet to be determined.
State lawmakers increased all of the most direct forms of state funding for local government: local government aid (LGA) for cities, county program aid (CPA), state education funding formulas, and state aid for city streets and county roads.
St. Charles, Goodview, and Lewiston will respectively get an extra $56,000, $54,000, and $18,400 in LGA.
The state will give Winona Area Publics Schools (WAPS), St. Charles Public Schools, and Lewiston-Altura Public Schools an extra $227, $170, and $169 per pupil, respectively. The added funding helps but will not solve WAPS’ budget challenges since school officials planned on getting increased state funding next year and incremental per-pupil funding increases do not address the long-term effects of declining enrollment.
Winona County will get an additional $298,000 in CPA for a total of $3 million next year. According to the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC), the new budget brings state funding for counties back up to 2001 levels, approximately. Funding was cut in the 2000s and 2010s. AMC staff celebrated the return to 2001 funding as a victory, while Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz noted that the cost of running state-mandated programs has gotten more expensive since 2001. “We’re glad the legislature recognized the need to increase the CPA, but our concern is that it still lags behind inflation,” he stated.
Winona County officials expect this legislative session could spell more bad news for the county’s finances. “I’m sorry to say that the CPA will probably not cover the shift in [other] costs because the health and human services budget — parts of it were cut significantly,” County Board member Marcia Ward said. The final budget deal struck by Democrats and Republicans cut funding for health and human services by $358 million. That includes funding for many welfare programs that Winona County must provide — from care for people with disabilities to food stamps for poor mothers. For years, Winona County officials and county leaders across the state have been complaining about the state’s unfunded mandates for social services. State law requires counties to run the programs and sets the rules for them, but often, state funding falls far short of what the programs cost to run. That forces counties to raise property taxes, Fritz explained. For years, lawmakers have balanced the state budget on the backs of county taxpayers, County Board members have said. “There were some good things in [this legislative session] that counties were looking for, but at the same time, I don’t know if we made a lot of progress on unfunded mandates,” Fritz stated.
Funding for health and human services could have been cut even more if the health care access fund had not been preserved. The fund gets revenue from taxes on health care providers, which are used to finance health insurance for poor Minnesotans. The tax was scheduled to expire. Republicans proposed allowing it to expire, while Democrats successfully strove to preserve it at a slightly reduced rate.
On transportation, statewide funding for county state aid highways, a program that funds most Winona County roads, increased from $1.6 billion to $1.7 billion. Lawmakers raised funding for major city streets — a program known as Municipal State Aid Streets (MSAS) — from $388 million to $420 million statewide over the next two years. In 2018 and 2019, the legislature provided $30 million in funding for township roads and city streets for cities too small to qualify for MSAS. That funding was not continued in the new budget.
Despite those increases, AMC counted the issue of transportation funding as a lost battle this session. Many local government groups have been urging the state to make far greater increases in transportation infrastructure funding and use a long-term, dedicated funding source, such as the gas tax. While AMC did not refer to Walz’s proposed 25-percent-per-gallon gas tax increase for road funding by name, the advocacy group lamented the lack of an increase in “constitutionally dedicated transportation funding” in the new budget. For their part, Republican lawmakers and Winona’s Democratic representative, Gene Pelowski said the proposed gas tax hike was just too much for their constituents to stomach.