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Railroad quiet zones a big part of mayor's '09 budget

WILLMAR -- Willmar Mayor Les Heitke is suggesting the city spend $179,478 in his proposed $20,842,162 budget for 2009 to establish railroad quiet zones at Willmar Avenue Southwest and 10th Street Southwest.

During his budget presentation to the Willmar City Council Monday night, Heitke said those crossings may not be the best or most important, but are two of eight crossings he thinks the city can address, "and we will keep working on that in future.''

He said the city has the opportunity to establish a quiet zone at Willmar Avenue because the crossing will be shifted to the north and a new crossing and structures can be installed when Willmar Avenue is rebuilt next year.

Also, Heitke said he thinks the city has a better chance to establish a quiet zone at 10th Street rather than at Seventh Street, which he said is the biggest problem but is more complicated and expensive.

He said the city must finance the solutions and reach agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway because the railroad is a private company and owns the tracks and land.

The council and city have discussed and looked for solutions to citizens' complaints about increased train noise for the past couple of years. The federal government required the use of locomotive horns at crossings, and in 2005 the Federal Railroad Administration allowed horns to be banned in quiet zones, provided certain safety measures are enacted.

"We're trying to do the best we can without burdening the taxpayer,'' he said.

The 2009 budget is down $1,776,000 from the 2008 budget because spending on capital improvements will be down next year. In 2008, the city spent money on road and other improvements in the old airport where the industrial park is expanding. For 2009, no new projects have been identified in the industrial park; therefore expenditures for the industrial park are less in 2009.

Heitke said revenue from the local option sales tax, which paid for those projects, will be collected and set in reserve for new projects.

The levy will increase 4.1 percent from $3,383,646 in 2008 to $3,525,325 in 2009, up by $141,679.

Heitke said Willmar has the lowest tax capacity rate of 13 regional cities in Minnesota.

Heitke said local government aid from the state, up $220,000 for 2009, accounts for 20.7 percent of the city's revenue. Revenue from charges for services is the second-largest source of revenue at 20.3 percent. Revenue from property taxes is third-highest at 15.8 percent.

Heitke said no employees will be added in 2009, even though new streets and facilities are added, requiring more time and effort from all city staff.

Regarding storm water problems, Heitke said staff have identified six to eight crucial areas where water ponding and retention are problems, including larger piping for storm water control and movement when Willmar Avenue is rebuilt.

"We think we have a plan that will continue to address storm water problems, but we can only do so much each year with a limited amount of money. But we are making plans and progress,'' he said.

Heitke said the Finance Committee will discuss the budget for the next two months. In early December, the council will have a public hearing and approve the budget before the end of 2008.