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New London gets community input on city budget

Greg Harp sits at the end of a row of empty chairs and listens to budget information presented Wednesday at a New London City Council meeting. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

NEW LONDON - There were about 50 chairs, with budget information packets on the seat of each chair, set up in the New London fire hall in preparation for a community meeting Wednesday.

About 15 of those chairs were filled.

While the number of participants at the town's community budget meeting may have been disappointing, the input provided by residents will help the City Council make budget decisions for the future.

Those decisions are particularly crucial in light of reductions in state aid as part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unallotment of $2.7 billion.

The latest figures show New London could lose $33,973 in local government aid this year from its $574,437 budget. Next year the cut will be $36,844.

"We were expecting a little worse than it turned out," Mayor Bill Gossman said.

Because local government aid makes up about 45 percent of the town's revenue, any reduction to that aid could mean cuts to city services as the city looks for ways to trim expenses.

"These guys have some hard decisions to make," City Administrator Trudie Guptill said.

One of the line items in the budget that is being eyed for reduction is the New London-Spicer Community Recreation program.

It's budgeted for $12,800 in 2009.

It's a contribution that hasn't changed in the 20 years since a joint powers agreement was put in place, said Peg Peterson, youth coordinator for the program.

Yet over those 20 years the youth programs have expanded from three months of summer activities to a 12-month program with more than 400 different offerings.

"You're getting a good bang for your buck," Peterson told the council.

And the youth activities bring people to town, which helps New London businesses, she said.

Most summer weekdays there are 160 to 250 kids participating in community recreation activities from 8 a.m. until noon in New London. Parents drive their kids to town for those activities, Peterson said. "We are bringing a lot of people in."

Besides the two towns, seven area townships also contribute funds to the program.

If New London reduced their financial share, Peterson said, it would likely have a ripple effect on the other participating entities. And, she said, parents would likely have to pay higher fees to have their children participate.

"It's a good bargain for the money," Gossman said.

The council is also looking at reducing or even eliminating its $42,630 contract with the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Department.

While it may be a tempting way to save money, eliminating the 35 to 40 hours per week of extra patrol could have some serious consequences for the community.

"It wouldn't sit well with most people," Gossman said.

Surveys were sent out recently with the municipal water and sewer bills that asks residents to rank a list of budget line items and offer budget-cutting and revenue-increasing ideas. About 50 surveys have been returned so far and the top concern is the lack of a grocery store in town, Guptill said.

The town's only grocery store closed early this spring.

After hearing that the price of the building had been drastically reduced recently, there was a lively discussion about ways to bring a grocery store back to business. The council agreed to facilitate another meeting in the near future to explore options, like a cooperative purchasing effort that would involve multiple people pooling their money to buy and operate a grocery store.

The council need to have its preliminary budget completed by Sept. 15.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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