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As economy chips away at local government, Heitke proposes county mayors discuss sharing services

WILLMAR -- Willmar Mayor Les Heitke said he intends to invite all mayors from Kandiyohi County cities to discuss possible sharing of services and financial efficiencies.

"I think it would be worthwhile in this climate of looking for more efficiencies to draw together our mayors within the county ... just listen to them and see if we can find some efficiencies,'' he said.

Also, Heitke said he'll propose a committee of business leaders and those involved in finance be formed to advise the city on possible budgetary efficiencies.

"I think it would be beneficial to have an advisory committee of people involved in finances and community leaders who probably have been in leadership positions in their own organizations or business or agencies to give us another set of eyes and some discussion about priorities for the city (and) perhaps advise us on budgetary concerns to make sure we're getting the most efficiency out of our city budget,'' he said.

Heitke announced his proposals at the start of a 90-minute City Council work session called Tuesday evening to discuss budgetary priorities as Willmar and other cities face the probability of receiving less Local Government Aid from the state in 2009.

The state faces a budget deficit that many predict will top $6 billion by the time the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty finish crafting a two-year budget that begins July 1.

Although council members took no vote nor endorsed cuts to any parts of the 2009 budget, they did reach consensus on four general themes:

- Everything is not all doom and gloom. Heitke encouraged council members not to panic. He said the city has conservatively managed its budget over the years and the city has the benefit of strong reserves.

- City department heads will be best ones for coming up with up with ideas for cuts within their budgets.

- All departments should share equally in the cuts.

- Revenue enhancements, such as fee increases, are not a high priority.

The council agreed to hold another work session on Feb. 9 and then follow that meeting with the regular Finance Committee meeting, during which City Administrator Michael Schmit will have scenarios prepared to show the effect of Local Government Aid cuts on the city budget and make recommendations.

"By that time, we will already have heard what the governor's proposed budget is and we'll be getting close to state's next financial report at the end of February,'' said Heitke. "Whatever the Legislature and the governor finally do has a direct impact on our city budget.''

During discussion, Finance Committee Chairman Denis Anderson said he'd like council members decide what they need to keep, what they'd like to keep and what can be cut. He favored letting department heads find possible reductions in their budget.

Jim Dokken said the council should engage the public and hold meetings in the chambers at the Municipal Utilities Building where the discussion can be recorded for presentation on the city's public access television channel.

Ron Christianson said the city should look at short-term and long-term cuts, look for efficiencies and better ways to do things.

Doug Reese agreed the council will have to look at sustainable cuts over a long period of time and save money for the city. He said department heads will know where cuts could be made and he said employees may know where savings could be realized.

Steve Ahmann said he has concerns for maintaining public services, and he said getting comments from citizens will be important. He recommended the council not look at fee increases but possibility consider a reduction in the work week.

Rick Fagerlie spoke in favor of working more efficiently and looking at sharing resources and services with Kandiyohi County.

Tim Johnson wondered how secure future Local Government Aid will be. He did not want to increase city fees, and spoke in favor of a value-added tax for those who can afford will pay it. He said his goal is make sure the city gives value back to citizens for the taxes they pay.

Bruce DeBlieck urged the council to proceed with caution and talk to other governmental entities about sharing services.