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EDC continues to wrangle over budget issues

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news Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- As heated discussion continues on the budgeting process for the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, members of the EDC operating board decided Thursday to hold a session in September focusing entirely on the 2014 budget.

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The board is in agreement on one key point: The property tax levy for the Economic Development Commission will remain unchanged next year at $455,000, the fourth year the EDC has held the line on property taxes.

Total expenses are projected at $531,707. The difference will be made up with money from the reserve fund.

Consensus remains elusive on several line items, however, including pay increases for two of the EDC staff. Also up in the air is whether the EDC will continue its lease for office space in downtown Willmar or move the office somewhere else.

Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission, has recommended one-time pay raises of $5,000 each for the assistant director and the agriculture and renewable energy specialist.

But when the budget was presented last month to the operating board, members were divided on the issue, with some questioning whether the salary increases were warranted.

Debate flared anew Thursday, not only over the salary issue but also over how to reallocate the money if the pay increases ultimately are turned down.

Renquist suggested investing it in a geographic information system, an online database initiated by the state and containing parcel-specific mapping of land use, utilities and more. The data is valuable to businesses seeking land for development or expansion, and it could benefit all the communities in Kandiyohi County, he said.

Some board members wondered if this is a worthwhile use of taxpayer dollars, however. Board member Bob Enos asked why the EDC was devoting attention to the development of systems and information rather than specifics about business growth. "We don't seem to talk about that very much," he said.

Questions also were raised about the expense of database maintenance and future upgrades.

"I'm not saying it's a bad decision to buy it. I don't know. I just think it's premature," said Gary Gilman.

Bruce Peterson, planning and development director for the city of Willmar and an ex officio member of the EDC joint operations board, defended the geographic information system as an appropriate project for the EDC. By making it quicker and easier for prospective developers to obtain site information, it increases the chance they'll follow through with a serious inquiry, he said. "These types of systems are very important to people that are seeking locations."

But with no clear agreement, the question was tabled.

Renquist said he recommended the pay raises for his staff based on a market analysis of comparable economic development positions in the Upper Midwest.

"I made a recommendation I thought I could support," he said. "It wasn't endorsed and we have to move on."

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