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Board wants EDC to trim from budget for next year

WILLMAR -- It's an austere budget the joint operations board of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission will send this month to the agency's governing board.

The operating board voted Thursday to recommend a $484,511 budget for next year. The board also asked the EDC staff on Thursday to go over this year's budget and identify areas where belt-tightening could take place between now and the end of the year.

"This is the time to do it," said Duane Hultgren, chairman of the joint operations board.

"We can't do it at the end of the year."

With half the year left to go, the Economic Development Commission has spent about 40 percent of its budget. The agency has historically ended the year on budget, but its highest expenses tend to occur in the last quarter of the year as projects come to fruition.

The proposed spending for next year is about $3,000 lower than this year.

For the third year in a row, the EDC also will keep its property tax levy the same in 2010, at $455,000, and dip into its reserve fund to help meet the overall budget.

The proposed budget will be forwarded to the governing board for its review and approval on July 23.

"I know that 2010 will be an austere budget year," said Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission.

Spending will remain flat in most areas, from office expenses to the program costs of EDC committees working on business retention, agribusiness, technology, renewable energy, marketing and more.

Renquist also did not budget a salary increase for himself, citing the need to hold down expenses during difficult economic times.

Operating board members, who saw a preliminary version of the 2010 budget at a planning session last month, readily reached a consensus on what's being proposed, with the exception of a line item for a legislative lobbyist.

The Economic Development Commission has been retaining former state senator Dean Elton Johnson as its lobbyist at the Minnesota Capitol. Johnson is primarily working on getting funding to locate a veterans' home and mental health facility in Willmar.

The city of Willmar and Kandiyohi County have been chipping in to support the cost of having a lobbyist, but next year the financial responsibility, estimated at about $12,000 for six months, will rest solely with the EDC.

No money has been allocated in the 2010 budget for a lobbyist, Renquist said. But if the board wants it to be a line item, "I can find the money in the budget," he said.

"I think it's so important to get that veterans' home," said board member Bev Dougherty.

To pull back from the lobbying effort now, when a decision on the facility could come in next year's legislative session, "would be the wrong thing to do," she said.

Nevertheless, members of the joint operations board couldn't come to an agreement on specifically allocating money for a lobbyist, and left the line item empty instead.

There's still room to add it later, Hultgren said.

"We know there is some reserve money we could access," he said.

The EDC has budgeted money from its reserves -- $32,700 this year and $29,500 next year -- to help fund programs and operation without having to increase the property tax levy.

There are "ample reserves" to get through the rest of this year, Renquist said Thursday.

The fund will eventually dwindle, however, if the EDC continues to dip into it to cover its expenses, he said. "Next year we'll almost assuredly have to use that reserve money in order to come in at the levy. ... Eventually, at this rate, we'll have spent all the reserve."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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