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Same goal, different priorities for Ward 2 candidates in Willmar, Minn.

WILLMAR -- One of the biggest challenges facing the city of Willmar is trying to find sufficient revenues to sustain growth, build infrastructure and provide services to residents at a reasonable cost, says Ward 2 City Council member Tim Johnson.

Challenger Andrew Bjur believes the city can save money by instituting a number of energy conservation measures.

Johnson and Bjur are running for the Ward 2 seat currently held by Johnson in the Nov. 6 general election. Johnson is seeking re-election to a second four-year term. Bjur ran unsuccessfully against incumbent council member Ron Christianson two years ago.

While knocking on doors and talking to residents, Johnson heard from quite a few people who commented on the increase in their property taxes.

The last legislative session, as part of the budget-balancing act, did away with the market value homestead credit and approved a new formula supposedly to put more money in the hands of local government -- because the state was not fully refunding those homestead credit amounts, he says.

State and federal governments are short of money and are pushing programs and services down to cities and counties, Johnson says.

As a result, "we are increasing property taxes to make up the difference. My goal is to work on that primarily,'' he said.

"That locks in with me with one of our major issues, which is (Local Government Aid) that's always in danger, especially in these times when we have the inability of the government to generate sufficient revenues to pay for the services they want to provide,'' he said.

Johnson said he's worried that the Legislature might end LGA, the program that provides for state aid to local governments based on a formula.

"The state plays gimmicks with budget shifts and they look at LGA and say why do we want to give that out, and Willmar is vulnerable there,'' he added.

Johnson says the city is careful with taxpayers' dollars. The city has reserves and the Legislature looks at that, he says. Not all cities get LGA and some get less. LGA and intergovernmental aid account for about 42 percent of revenue for Willmar's budget. Loss of LGA would be devastating and the state continues to take it away, he says.

"It's a major issue,'' Johnson said. "About all we can do is go day-to-day and deal with it as best we can.''

Johnson says the city has six or seven fewer positions but is still providing a high level of service to taxpayers.

"That's the challenge that we face that I look forward to embracing if the voters re-elect me is continuing to be able to provide those services at a reasonable cost,'' he said. "We have to provide services at a reasonable cost. That's the challenge.''

Bjur says city government needs to look at and implement energy conservation techniques in municipal facilities as a better way to save thousands of dollars rather than cutting jobs and services.

Bjur says a series of budget cuts means less city services, which at first sounds fine until those services are needed.

"Anytime we're cutting city jobs we're also hurting families that had those jobs and we don't notice it now because we have nice streets and well-groomed and well-cleaned parks,'' Bjur said.

"But when we start cutting people from doing that, sooner or later our streets and parks get a little dirtier and we'll start complaining we want those jobs back,'' he said.

Bjur says the goals he has championed during the last 13 years of volunteering include park and trail development, downtown restoration, local foods, energy reduction and sustainable communities.

The benefits of these strategies include less money spent on heating, cooling and power consumption of the city buildings. Parks and trails encourage fun physical activity that increases personal wellness.

Promotion of downtown restoration and local foods retains the historic and cultural character of the community's downtown structures and provides city residents with regular access to fresh, local foods, Bjur says.

Bjur was appointed by the city as chair of the Green Steps Task Force, which is working with city staff on some of the program's energy conservation measures. However, Bjur feels he can do more if he is elected to the council.

Johnson says one of Willmar's greatest strengths is an excellent leadership team at city hall. Also, he says the current City Council members are a very talented and able group, and Mayor Frank Yanish is providing good leadership.

Johnson says the council has a tremendous amount of trust in city staff, but that council members like to verify things, too. He says council members have a duty to constituents to bring things out so that citizens understand why the city's doing certain things.

"We do a lot of things right,'' he said.

Johnson thinks Willmar has a great future.

"I grew up here. Kids can pretty much ride their bicycles anywhere in town and not have to be too worried about anything bad happening to them,'' he said. "It's a pretty safe town.''

Bjur says it's time for a change at the City Council level. He has a school-age daughter and says he constantly thinks about the future. He wants to take the leadership skills gained by involvement at church and community activities to the council.

"With the right planning, there are ways to save money, ways to save jobs and work together and build a better future,'' he said.

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