The Willmar City Council will be voting at its Dec. 3 meeting on a proposed ordinance that will impose a natural gas franchise fee on CenterPoint Energy. If the ordinance is approved, the fee will be collected by CenterPoint Energy from its customers and passed on to the city (similar to a sales tax). The Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on this issue and is leaving this decision to individual members and property owners.
We are surprised that the mayor and some members of the council want to impose a franchise fee on another private utility (CenterPoint Energy). This will help the city generate $250,000 annually for the "pleasure of doing business in our community," as the mayor was quoted as saying, to help fill the void in the city's perceived loss of local government aid in 2008.
What was more troubling was that he proposed that the utility fee just go to the general fund and not to any specific project like roads (hint, hint), the library or public safety that they always threaten to cut if they can't fill the void left by losing their LGA.
In reviewing the special session resolution, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities was encouraging local city councils to pass an attempt to get and share in the $70 million in local government aid that was "lost" when the governor vetoed the omnibus tax bill.
We often hear other cities complain about losing local government aid and that they don't know what they're going to do to make ends meet. Then they begin discussions of cutting public safety services such as police and fire to get people's attention. What we never do hear is when the funding is restored.
Case in point:
Willmar local government aid:
2002 -- $4,352,393
2003 -- $3,951,281
2004 -- $3,951,281
2005 -- $4,158,237
2006 -- Cut to $2,191,910.50 but restored to $4,383,821 after budget revisions
2007 -- $4,619,068
Help us understand where Willmar has lost so far in the LGA game.
On another side note, it also seems to us that voters are smarter than elected officials give them credit for and Willmar is a good example.
On two occasions, the city of Willmar has passed a local-option sales tax. We think this proves the case that citizens (voters) will support tax increases if they know where the money will go and if it's needed. We're not sure it's a good thing when the mayor is proud to point out that out of all of the regional centers, we have the lowest tax rate and haven't had a tax increase in 11-plus years, but yet we have needs such as streets, wastewater treatment plant, library, etc.
Doesn't it cost more to buy city equipment, payroll, etc. that from time to time we do need to raise the charge to cover the cost of business instead of blaming others because we don't get LGA to cover those expenses?
It appears to us that what happens from time to time when extra money is needed, the council, through staff recommendations, can go back a couple of years and get access to monies not used in a previous year budget. This is known as excess revenue over expenses that were budgeted but not used to pay for projects that are just a little short or have little or no funding.
Try to attend the Dec. 17 public hearing and let the mayor and council know how you feel about this issue. So many times they say they never hear from their constituents on the issues. Here is a chance to let them hear you.
The business community is willing to sit at the table with the city to help find funding solutions to things such as flood control issues, roads, etc. but we'd like to be asked to join them at the table for the discussion instead of having to make our voice and concerns known through this type of communication.
Ken Warner is president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.