The Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce has been a Minnesota Chamber Federation member since its inception in 2005 and proudly so. I think it is one of the reasons our local chamber is well respected. Our residents and local units of government see the local chamber as the representative organization for business.
In my opinion, the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber is the local and only voice of business. As a Federation member, we need to respond to the Albert Lea Tribune editorial and the commentary by Bemidji and Albert Lea mayors concerning local government aid published Monday and Tuesday in the West Central Tribune.
Using the examples of Albert Lea and Bemidji was unfair to not only the Minnesota Chamber, but to the city of Willmar, too. The Willmar city administrator and I have been friends and colleagues for more than 17 years and have worked on many things. We have always had a gentlemen's agreement that we were not going to drag the Willmar community into the debate between the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota Chamber. The Willmar Lakes Chamber has rejected the CGMC's efforts to drive a wedge between cities and local chambers and between metropolitan areas and Greater Minnesota.
The Willmar Lakes Chamber prefers to have that discussion locally and to work on mutual challenges locally. In that regard, we are working with our city, encouraging all government redesign efforts, from collaborating with other units of government to competitive sourcing of services and everything in between. That is why we brought in Peter Hutchinson with the Bush Foundation to encourage all to look at the bigger picture and to remind all that we have to work on this together -- not just point fingers and say, "You fix the problems."
In addition, we have asked the city for the mandates they would like to see eliminated. They have provided a list, and we are working with the Minnesota Chamber and our legislators to eliminate some of these. To their credit, many other local chambers are working with the Minnesota Chamber and taking similar initiatives with their cities.
Local government aid is destined to undergo dramatic change. Our city has done a good job of budgeting and adopting a budget with reduced state aid to the tune of $500,000. Not an easy task, but they also know that tough times call for tough decisions. The city of Willmar has always targeted the LGA money toward capital improvements, for things like trucks and other equipment. If the money is not there, then they delay the purchases for another budget year and adjust accordingly.
Our elected and appointed officials realize there is not an endless supply of money coming from St. Paul and are planning accordingly. They never have spent more than they have taken in. With their conservative approach to taxpayers' money, they have done it wisely, knowing they as local officials are accountable for how they spend it.
LGA is a tough issue and a moving target, but an issue that needs to be on the table for discussion. The CGMC resolution being distributed to cities and chambers around the state stymies discussions and keeps LGA as we know it as the status quo.
From my standpoint, LGA was created more than 30 years ago and worked then. In today's world, the LGA formula does not work and needs to be updated to something more accountable and relevant for all Minnesotans so we see a return on our investment.
In my opinion, it is OK to agree to disagree with the government, whether it is the city, county or state. However, at the end of the day, we should reach consensus and keep things moving forward.
It is unfortunate and unproductive to see the CGMC wage war against the Minnesota Chamber, pitting local chambers against their cities. Only a handful of the 130-plus local chambers have signed the CGMC resolution. To be honest, those local chambers that have caved to the pressure have never had a strong private sector-driven public policy agenda.
It would be a lot more proactive to sit at the table and be a solution-seeker, instead of a problem-solver. Problem-solvers just talk about the problem. Nobody is promoting elimination of LGA, but rather we are looking at alternatives to deliver it better.
Living within our means and realizing we cannot look in the rearview mirror for the solution is a much better alternative than just pointing fingers. When you do that, there are always three pointing back at you.
Ken Warner is president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.