Heitke says his main priority is what's best for Willmar
WILLMAR -- Mayor Les Heitke says his main priority is what's best for Willmar. Heitke is completing his fourth four-year term as mayor and is seeking a fifth term in the Nov. 2 general election. He is opposed by businessman Frank Yanish.
Heitke said he's repeatedly asked about city finances. He said people understand that federal financial problems spill over to the state level with the state passing those budgeting problems onto cities, counties and school districts.
He said the city is careful to manage its resources now.
"We here in Willmar are fully aware that things could get more difficult in the future,'' he said. "I have prepared a balanced budget for 2011. That's presupposing that the state is going to stick to its word and not reduce any Local Government Aid or any unallotments before the end of June 30, 2011.''
In anticipation of possible state aid cuts, Heitke and the City Council asked staff to prepare for reductions in services ranging from half a million to $1 million. Staff will present those scenarios in December.
"Obviously it would mean a cutback in services, perhaps not replacing empty positions with the city which we now have five that are open due to attrition, retirements or people switching jobs,'' Heitke said.
"That's our primary concern and that's the one thing that I think about. If the state holds to its word of not causing any unallotments, I believe that we can move forward with a balanced budget and we are in good shape.''
Heitke talks with other mayors by phone and at meetings of the League of Minnesota Cities and Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. He is second vice president of the National League of Cities and says Willmar is known and respected around the country.
Heitke has begun talking to mayors of Kandiyohi County's smaller cities about perhaps planning together for what everyone expects will be a reduction in future finances. He thinks the meetings will be helpful.
"They're concerned especially because they have low tax bases, smaller city budgets and any cutback is a significant cutback for them. They have told me that after the elections they do want to get together and talk about what we have for common concerns,'' Heitke said.
Heitke said continued economic development is important. He said the developing property tax base from economic growth has helped Willmar meet its budget without raising taxes. He said the city is fortunate that small business development is thriving. The downtown area has over 168 independent businesses.
"We continue to grow, not as fast as we were growing a few years ago, but our population is inching up 1 to 2 percent a year,'' he said. Building permits during the past three to five years averaged around $30 million to $35 million annually, but now are averaging about $20 million per year.
"The economic growth, while it's in homes or businesses or commercial-industrial, is continuing to happen and we're very supportive of that,'' Heitke said.
He's working with state and national legislators to fund major city projects such as railroad quiet zones and the new wastewater treatment plant. He said the city is waiting for the government to release the old airport property to the city for industrial development.
"We have businesses that are ready to expand and grow into that old airport property but we can't sell them the property until the state releases the old airport to us,'' Heitke said. "We're working on that. We think it's close.''
Heitke does not support the idea of sending one or two Willmar police officers to Immigration Customs and Enforcement training. He said the program would break down the trust between minority people and the public safety people. No other Minnesota city uses the program and he does not think police should be doing the work of federal agents when immigration enforcement is a federal program.
Heitke said the police already have a very steady working relationship with ICE.
"The program sounds good at first glance but it costs money, it takes police out of the local community and we've had some recent criminal incidents where we need all the efforts of our local police department to stay on top of the situation,'' he said.
If re-elected, Heitke will continue meeting weekly with Somali elders. Most of them came from civil war areas and were in refugee camps for 1½ to 2 years before coming here. Heitke said the elders are working to develop a community of inclusiveness among themselves and to have positive leadership for younger Somalis.
Heitke supports continued use of partnerships with Kandiyohi County, Willmar School District, Ridgewater College, businesses and private groups to develop and complete local programs, projects and services.
One highlight of his career was Willmar's recognition as an All-America City in 2005. The award, given to 10 cities a year, was based on the hard work of the community to solve local problems and especially help with integration of people of diversity, Heitke said.
"I want to keep that work record moving forward so that this city remains strong and continues to work with difficult issues and questions and maintains its leadership among regional cities in the state of Minnesota,'' he said.