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Survey finds public works, safety issues are priorities for residents

A construction crew is seen May 18 working on a road in Willmar. Public works projects are a key concern to city residents, a new survey finds. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Responses to a recent Willmar community budget survey indicate people are mainly concerned about public works and public safety issues.

The July survey was authorized by the City Council to get community feedback as council members, Mayor Les Heitke and city officials prepare the 2011 budget, taking into account the possibility of more state aid cuts.

The survey was made available online, in print and other media from July 7 through 21.

Respondents were asked to list their top 10 municipal programs or activities.

Respondents were also asked if they would support property tax increases and fee increases to maintain municipal services, asked if they would support a cut in municipal services and which services would they cut, and asked to rate municipal service levels. Other thoughts and opinions were also requested.

Of 356 responses, 298 selected public works maintenance as their highest priority in 2011.

The next five, ranked in order of importance, were: police patrol -- 272; drugs and gangs -- 246; street construction -- 227; storm water management -- 218; and water and sewer availability -- 198.

Other programs or activities making the top 10 were: economic development -- 172; police calls for service -- 165; fire department calls for service -- 151; and parks -- 136.

City Administrator Michael Schmit said the top six items are all somewhat related to public works and safety.

"If you lump those all into those general categories and you move down a few more, really what I see is that people are interested in public safety, public works, parks, and recreation programs for children,'' he said. "That pretty much says it all when it comes to what are the traditional services that communities provide and what are the traditional services that people expect.''

Programs and activities that garnered the fewest responses included the Civic Center, Willmar Fests and public access television.

The numbers were presented to the council during an hour-long work session Monday. The council discussed the results but took no action or made any decisions.

Schmit said he did not know whether the number of responses was good or bad. He said the number was respectable, but in comparison to the number of people that live in Willmar was probably a poor response. But the survey was well-advertised and Schmit pointed out it was not by any means intended to be a scientific survey.

The survey asked if respondents would support a property tax increase or fee increases to maintain municipal services. The city has in the past and will mostly likely in the future deal with reductions in Local Government Aid. LGA -- money distributed to local governments from the state -- accounts for 28 percent of the city's general fund revenue and further reductions will significantly affect municipal services, the survey said.

A total of 174 said they would not support a property tax increase, while 148 said yes.

However, 194 said they would support fee increases, while 129 said no.

"In other words, if you use the service, you pay for it and people don't have a problem with that,'' Schmit said.

Even though a majority of respondents would not support a property tax increase to maintain services, 192 said they opposed a cut in municipal services, while 133 said they favored such a cut.

"They are saying they don't want their services cut but at the same time are saying we don't want to raise taxes,'' said Schmit.

The responses were followed by 2½ pages of suggested cuts.

Schmit said the council should feel proud that most respondents were satisfied with the level of city services during trying economic times: 206 rated city services good and 67 excellent.

Sixty-eight rated service levels as fair and 8 said poor.

"I don't know why somebody would say poor,'' said Schmit. "But I think overall people are obviously pretty satisfied.''

The question was followed by 6½ pages of other thoughts and opinions.

The results and council discussion will be shared with the mayor who will prepare his annual budget and submit it to the council toward the end of August.

"And then the council and mayor will have to wrestle with any philosophical differences that they have and put a budget together and at the same time we'll prepare for the possibility of more cuts in 2011 when the Legislature convenes,'' said Schmit.

Meanwhile, he said staff will develop a phased approach to possible budget cuts similar to the approach used last year when LGA was reduced.

"If they cut this much, this is what we're going to do. So we're going to try to prepare for that,'' he said.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150