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City Council OKs 2009 preliminary levies

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council Tuesday night approved a preliminary 2009 general fund property tax levy of $3,525,325, up about 4.2 percent from the 2008 levy.

But a council member raised an objection to the Willmar Housing and Redevelopment Authority's separate preliminary 2009 levy of $189,908, up 33.9 percent from the 2008 levy.

Council member Ron Christianson asked why the HRA requested an increase of almost 34 percent.

Steve Okins, city finance director, said HRA Executive Director Dorothy Gaffaney has submitted a detailed budget along with the levy request.

Okins said Gaffaney indicated two major contributing factors: that the amount is the maximum allowed by law; and that the agency will ask the council for one additional position and some staff salary adjustments.

Christianson said the first reason "is no reason at all -- 'because we can.' I don't like that.''

Christianson also said he obtained the updated application for the Westwind housing project and he said the HRA is donating considerably more money toward the project, which Christianson did not support.

"I don't think it should be on the backs of the citizens to be dumping more money into that than is necessary,'' he said.

Christianson said the Finance Committee will see Gaffaney at the budget meeting and said she can explain the request.

"I just think that's irresponsible, unless there's some real justification for it,'' he said.

Christianson asked Mayor Les Heitke to clarify that the HRA's request is the maximum allowed. During budget discussions, Heitke said, the council can't go higher, but it can go lower.

Okins said the city's and HRA's preliminary levies came to the council first instead of going through the normal Finance Committee process because of the timing conflicts that the city encounters between Kandiyohi County and the Truth-in-Taxation laws.

Okins said the city received notification from the county, which receives its information from the Minnesota Department of Revenue, on Aug. 26 and that was the day after the Finance Committee last met.

The city is required to certify its preliminary levy to the county by Sept. 15. If the levy were to be taken to the Finance Committee, which meets again on Sept. 8, the levy would have to be certified before the next council meeting on the 15th, Okins said.

"That's why you see this notification,'' he said.

Okins said the city will be under the levy limit law, under which the Department of Revenue notifies the city of the maximum the city can certify to the county. In this case, the amount is $3,525,225 for 2009.

As in past years, the city can always reduce this amount but cannot increase it, he said.

"That's why we bring this amount to you tonight,'' he said.

Okins said the HRA is allowed to levy an amount equal to a percentage of the estimated market value of the community.

Okins recommended the council certify the levies as maximum amounts, and that the council take up further discussion at future Finance meetings when Heitke presents his 2009 budget and before the council's Truth-in-Taxation public hearing in December.

The preliminary levies were approved 7-0 with Christianson, Cindy Swenson, Steve Gardner, Jim Dokken, Rick Fagerlie, Bruce DeBlieck and Doug Reese voting in favor.

Council member Denis Anderson was absent.

In other business, the council approved changes to the standards used for approving conditional use permits. The proposed changes in what are called "findings of fact'' are the result of a review by the Willmar Planning Commission and the council's Community Development Committee.

The commission and the committee recommended the council set a public hearing to consider the amendments that would make changes to the findings of fact. The council received no comments from the public and approved the changes after about an hour of discussion.