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Finance Committee will ask City Council to approve surveying local citizens about concerns as city looks to balance budget

The Finance Committee is recommending the City Council ask citizens to rank the city's 10 most important programs or activities. Their comments will guide Mayor Les Heitke and council members as they prepare the 2011 city budget.

If the council enacts the proposed survey, citizens will also be asked if they support a tax increase, fee increases, or cuts in municipal services if Local Government Aid paid by the state of Minnesota is reduced. City officials say LGA accounts for 28 percent of the general operating fund and further reductions will significantly affect city services.

The council will consider the committee's recommendation on July 6.

The survey was the idea Committee Chairman Denis Anderson.

"We are doing this to get the City Council's thoughts to the mayor. He will do as he sees fit and then the council wrestles with it in the fall,'' he said.

The committee had asked city staff to put a survey together, and staff members proposed a four-part survey.

The first part lists more than 30 programs and activities for citizens to rank. Those range from building code enforcement, transit bus funding, economic and industrial development, Community Center programming, and water and sewer maintenance, to crime prevention, Willmar Fests, airport maintenance and promotion, and snow plowing and tree trimming.

Space is provided for "other'' areas.

The second part asks three questions: Would citizens support a tax increase to maintain services; would they support a fee increase to maintain services; would they support a cut in services and if so, what would they cut?

The questions are prefaced with a statement that the city has in the past, and most likely will in the future, deal with LGA reductions. LGA accounts for 28 percent of general operating revenue, and further cuts will significantly affect city services.

The third part asks citizens to rate how well services have been maintained as the city faces numerous challenges in the recent economic environment.

The fourth part asks citizens for other thoughts, opinions or comments related to city budgeting or finances.

The survey is being proposed as Willmar and other cities face dire financial problems, according to a report from the League of Minnesota Cities.

The report projects cities of every size in every region will be broke by 2015 if no policy changes are made. By 2025, cities overall would see a deficit of 35 percent of city revenues.

The report said fundamental changes are needed in city services and funding in order to avoid these projections.

The League said that because of cuts in state aids and credits since 2003 and a slumping national economy affecting other sources of revenue, cities have already made dramatic service cuts and increased property taxes to compensate. Neither of those choices is desirable or sustainable for the long term, according to the League.

The League said, "It is time for an honest and constructive dialogue about the services cities provide and how those services should be paid going forward.''

The committee met at Garfield School and toured the building. The council is being asked to consider the Willmar School District's offer of giving the Garfield site to the city in exchange for a partial or full reduction in the city's $373,000 assessment for construction of the bus road and turnaround at Roosevelt Elementary School.

The idea has been discussed by city and school district officials. The school district wants to dispose of two of its three former elementary buildings: Garfield, Washington and Lincoln. If the city acquires Garfield, the district will move the Area Learning Center to Lincoln, said City Administrator Michael Schmit.

"The school (district) administration and I have been talking about the possibility in lieu of the city buying the Garfield property that maybe there would be some way we could pick up all or a portion of the assessment for the new Roosevelt road in lieu of any cash buyout,'' he said.

Schmit said the council must determine if it's interested in the property and then decide how the city would use the property.

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