Mayor Heitke wants to hold the line on Willmar city budget

WILLMAR -- Mayor Les Heitke is proposing a 2008 budget for the city of Willmar that attempts to hold down an increase in property taxes despite expectations of a significant decrease in local government aid from the state.

WILLMAR -- Mayor Les Heitke is proposing a 2008 budget for the city of Willmar that attempts to hold down an increase in property taxes despite expectations of a significant decrease in local government aid from the state.

The mayor proposes to hold the line on property taxes by keeping city spending in check, raising new revenue through a natural gas franchise fee, and by not taking on potentially costly proposals for railroad quiet zones or flood control. Mayor Heitke outlined his 2008 budget proposal to members of the city's Finance Committee at their meeting Monday.

The mayor's budget calls for a total city budget of $22,618,439. It would allow no more than inflationary spending increases in most city departments.

Heitke called for a property tax levy of $3,133,646, which reflects an 11.63 percent increase overall. The impact on property owners would range from a projected tax increase of $5.15 for a home valued at $100,000 to $7.72 for a commercial property of the same value.

The mayor's proposed levy compares to a $3,383,646 ceiling on the tax levy approved earlier by the Willmar City Council.


The city is expecting a continued drop in local government aid from the state, and that is one reason Heitke said he favors implementing a natural gas franchise fee. The fee would raise an estimated $250,000 for the city.

Heitke would like to see the franchise fee revenues added to the city's overall budget, but council members already have taken action to dedicate the franchise fee monies toward storm and flood control measures.

That is just one of the areas of dispute or what Mayor Heitke termed "flash points'' for the upcoming debate on the city's budget.

The mayor told council members that his budget does not include any funding for either railroad quiet zones or for flood control and mitigation. The city has seen estimates ranging from $300,000 to $600,000 for the railroad quiet zones, said Heitke, who cautioned against moving ahead at this time. He noted that the numbers are "not solid'' and that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has not made a commitment to any specific types of quiet zone signals.

Also, he expressed reservations about flood control and mitigation projects when there are so many unknowns. "The costs just aren't on the table yet,'' Heitke said.

He noted that the city's flood issues go well beyond the much publicized problems. There are flood issues involving downtown locations and buildings, he said. He noted that the city risks setting a costly precedent if it were to buy out property in one flood-prone area.

Heitke also expressed his reservations about tapping reserve funds for any of these projects. He said the reserve funds have historically been used for emergency situations.

The mayor's budget also does not include funds for proposed gateways on U.S. Highway 12 to the downtown area, although Heitke indicated that he does not oppose the project. He suggested that council members could look at tapping the city's street improvement funds for the gateway projects, but noted that it would come at the expense of other street improvement projects.


While these three areas are sure to be the focus of the upcoming budget debate, Heitke noted that there will be other issues for the council and Finance Committee to resolve. The mayor's budget for the Pioneerland Regional Library administrative offices includes $18,000, not the $25,000 being requested.

The mayor would also end the city's long-standing practice of contributing funds to the Southwest Initiative Foundation. He said his budget offers no funding to the foundation due to the cut in local government aid the city is anticipating.

The mayor cited the steady decrease in local government aid from the state as one of his major concerns. His 2008 budget projects that local government aid from the state will total $4,184,756. That would represent 19.9 percent of revenues in the budget, as compared to 23.6 percent in 2007.

Mayor Heitke voiced his displeasure at the roller-coaster ride the city has experienced with local government aid. "I don't want our city to operate like the state of Minnesota,'' he said.

Heitke emphasized the importance of stability in budgeting and keeping property taxes in check. He called a low property tax rate an "economic tool'' that has contributed to the city's growth.

The city of Willmar has the lowest tax rate of any regional city in the state, according to the mayor. Taxpayers experience an overall tax rate "in the middle of the pack'' of regional cities when county and school taxes are included, according to information provided to the Finance Committee.

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