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Northland leaders brace for cuts

Lynne Williams, director of marketing and public relations for UMD, explains why she opposes President Trump's budget cuts to science and research at a press conference Monday at City Hall. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Linnea Mirsch, director of Public Health and Human Services in St. Louis County, speaks about how much Duluth and surrounding communities would suffer if President Trump's budget cuts as they are currently written are approved. She spoke during a press conference with county, state and congressional staff who gathered to show their solidarity and explain their opposition to the budget Monday at City Hall. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Officials gathered at Duluth City Hall Tuesday morning to register their mounting concerns about funding cuts President Donald Trump proposed in the "budget blueprint" he issued late last week.

Keith Hamre, Duluth's director of planning and construction services, talked about what proposed federal housing fund cuts could mean for the city. He noted that Duluth annually receives $2.2 million in the form of Community Development Block Grants and $540,000 in HOME investment Partnerships Program funding.

"We leverage that more than 3.4 times," he said. "We bring in about $9.5 million from private investment.

Those funds could be zeroed out under the president's plan, and Hamre catalogued the many ways that money is used in Duluth.

"Over 140 housing units are rehabbed for low-income people. Over 187 people are trained, with 24 businesses being assisted. Over 1,100 abused women and children receive support services. Over 18,000 people are fed. Over 600 youth are fed as part of that program. Over 5,000 people receive health care services. Over 600 receive housing services, and 1,200 people are supported in overnight homeless shelters," he said.

"The loss of these programs would be devastating for our community and would put a greater burden on local government and county government," Hamre said.

Linnea Mirsch, St. Louis County's public health and human services director, said the loss of housing funds would be felt throughout the Northland.

If CDBG funding is nixed, she said the rest of St. Louis County would lose out on $1.8 million next year, which has been used in the past to leverage about $8 million in additional support. Mirsch said the county also could stand to lose $440,000 in annual HOME funding that has been used in the past to assist 75 homeowners in greater St. Louis County and to leverage about $5 million in first mortgage loans.

Mirsch also brought up Trump's proposal to cut federal health and human services agency funding by 18 percent, reducing it to the lowest level of spending in two decades.

"Over two-thirds of St. Louis County's $96 million health and human services budget is funded by federal and state sources, and very often state sources are funded by federal sources flowing through them," she said.

Trump's blueprint is simply a proposal. Congress ultimately controls the nation's purse strings.

Several members of Northeastern Minnesota's congressional delegation sent letters to be read at Tuesday's event. They all vowed to fend off cuts to the best of their abilities.

Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, wrote: "To be clear, Congress will make the final decisions. And as we begin the process, there is growing bipartisan agreement that the president's vision is unacceptable."

John Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and vice chair of the Great Lakes Commission, expressed concern about Trump's proposal to cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent.

"If we see this scale of cuts proposed by the administration at first, what concerns everyone is: What's going to be the end-of-the-day conversation? Never before, at least in my recent memory, could you point to this dramatic of a scale reduction across so many federal programs," he said.

Stine noted that if enacted, the president's blueprint would eliminate funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has identified 43 areas of concern, with 12 of them now in the midst of remediation efforts. Stine said the very largest of these projects is located in the St. Louis River estuary, and it's slated for completion in 2020.

"That progress is jeopardized by the current budget," he said. "These dollars are needed for long-standing legacy pollution cleanup in the St. Louis River, as well as other programs that benefit the science and the research necessary to improve air and land and water quality across the state of Minnesota. So we are here to support the mayor and the city's efforts to make known the results that are harmful to our state, harmful to our environment and to public health."

Mayor Emily Larson characterized cleanup funds as critical for a post-industrial city like Duluth to put underutilized property back to productive use.

"My job is to advocate for this community and to ensure that we are speaking to our values. This budget does not match the values of this community, and it will impact us in ways that will take us significantly backwards," Larson said.