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Candidates offer solutions to fiscal and quality-of-life issues facing city

Frank Yanish, left, who is challenging Willmar Mayor Les Heitke, makes a point Tuesday during a debate in Willmar as Heitke looks on. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Candidates for mayor and City Council in the Nov. 2 general election responded to questions about budgets, land use, immigration enforcement and improving downtown during a debate Tuesday sponsored by the Willmar League of Women Voters and broadcast over KWLM and televised on WRAC-8.

J.P. Cola, KWLM news director, asked questions submitted by some of the two dozen people watching the event in the council chambers at the Municipal Utilities Building and from questions sent by e-mail or called in over the phone.

Two candidates participated in the mayoral debate. Les Heitke, 61, a licensed psychologist, is completing his fourth four-year term as mayor and is seeking a fifth term.

He is opposed by Frank Yanish, 67, co-owner of Central Tire and Auto.

Of the four council seats open, there's a contest for the Ward 2 seat held by Ron Christianson, 60, co-owner of Christianson Brothers Construction, who is completing his 16th year on the council and is seeking re-election.

His opponent is Andrew Bjur, 35, an architect at Engan Associates.

Heitke said state and national fiscal problems are putting pressure on cities and other governmental entities. His priorities as mayor include job creation, public safety, and open and transparent government.

Yanish said he will make an effort to "fix things that have not been fixed,'' listen to people and respond to their concerns, enforce ordinances and "make sure everyone plays by the same rules.''

One questioner asked how the mayor can attract businesses to vacant downtown buildings.

Yanish said downtown should be clean, safe, attractive and a destination. Heitke said the Willmar Design center is working on events to bring people downtown. He said a survey found 168 businesses in downtown. One way to attract business is to keep the tax rate low, he said.

The candidates were asked if Rice Hospital has lost its designation as a regional hospital.

Heitke said he thinks Rice will continue as the premier hospital for west central Minnesota. Yanish said Rice Hospital is "here to stay.''

When the candidates were asked about railroad quiet zones, Yanish said quiet zones could easily be done and he was amazed they weren't done long ago. He estimated the cost at about $100,000. Heitke said the city needs quiet zones, which could cost from $400,000 to $2 million, and is working on the problems. But he questioned Yanish's cost estimate.

Another question dealt with sending one or two police officers to immigration law enforcement training. Yanish favored the training. If nothing else, he said, it would be a deterrent to being here illegally. Heitke said immigration is a federal issue and said federal immigration laws need to be reformed.

Regarding business creation, Heitke said the city is waiting for the state to release the old airport site to the city for development as an industrial park. Yanish said the old airport industrial park has been a fiasco. He said the city sold land that did not belong to the city and platted land the city didn't own. Heitke said the city "has not sold one square foot of land'' and said the state has delayed development.

Christianson and Bjur responded to many of the same questions.

Bjur thanked Christianson for his service, but said it was time for a change. Bjur said he has experience working on projects and getting things done. He said his top priority is to improve the storm water problem.

Christianson said he has a passion for serving people and wants to be where the decisions are made.

On budgeting, Christianson said he did not support reducing the budget by a certain amount, but wanted to know first how much Local Government Aid will be "before we put a number to it.'' He favored studying how the private sector could perform some city services.

Bjur favored focusing on a conservative budget, being creative to deal with revenue shortfalls, keeping services in place and looking at discretionary spending.

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