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Natural gas franchise fee fails on 4-3 City Council vote

WILLMAR -- An ordinance amendment establishing a proposed natural gas franchise fee received support from four of the seven Willmar City Council members present at their regular meeting Monday night.

WILLMAR -- An ordinance amendment establishing a proposed natural gas franchise fee received support from four of the seven Willmar City Council members present at their regular meeting Monday night.

But the ordinance amendment failed on a 4-3 vote because enactment of an ordinance requires at least five affirmative votes.

Voting to amend the ordinance and establish the franchise fee on CenterPoint Energy for use of public right-of-way were Doug Reese, Denis Anderson, Steve Gardner and Bruce DeBlieck.

Voting against were Ron Christianson, Jim Dokken and Cindy Swenson.

Council member Rick Fagerlie was absent.

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The ordinance had been proposed as a way to generate between $226,000 and $250,000 per year to help pay for the city's portion of the Grass Lake water quality project and to address city flooding problems.

Council members voted after they listened to comments from citizens during a public hearing called to consider enacting the ordinance, and then debated the ordinance.

Supporters of the fee said it provides funds to get the projects started.

Those opposed to the fee said the ordinance did not specifically state that revenue would be used for flooding problems and did not have a provision to end the fee after projects were completed.

Others said the franchise fee was not fair and said revenue should be raised by levying a special assessment or increasing property taxes.

Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, said the ordinance as proposed did not define where the money would go or whether the fee would sunset.

The ordinance did say the council shall review the ordinance every two years.

"In our eyes, this can go on forever," Warner said.

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The lack of a sunset provision was also pointed out by resident Jerry Gesch, who also said the money should be dedicated.

Resident John Sullivan spoke against the fee and said the council should levy a tax or bond issue now for the projects.

During council discussion, Anderson said he was surprised the sunset provision was not included. Anderson said he supported the fee, and said he'd offer a motion to dedicate the revenue to storm water and Grass Lake.

City Administrator Michael Schmit said the wording of the ordinance had not changed since the council introduced the ordinance for a public hearing.

Dokken said he did not support the fee and favored raising taxes or a special assessment to pay for the projects.

DeBlieck supported the language in the ordinance and said a separate motion could be passed to dedicate the funds.

Christianson spoke against the fee and urged the council to use reserve funds or place a tax on the entire city. "We have flooding problems all over. This is just another grab for more money," he said.

Gardner said the franchise fee was the only plan brought forward to fix the problem.

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After the vote was taken, Mayor Les Heitke said the city now has no money for flood control and it puts a damper on the city's portion of the Grass Lake project.

Anderson said the Finance Committee, of which he is chairman, would take up the funding issue at a later meeting. "I guess we'll have to look at it for the 2009 budget," he said.

The council's decision dismayed resident Laura Becker whose home was flooded last August by rainwater in the intersection at 10th Street and Kandiyohi Avenue Southwest. Becker said she is still waiting for an answer from the council to recurrent flooding problems, and she said she'll be calling council members if her home is flooded again.

In other business, the council defeated a motion recommended by the Labor Relations Committee to call the Charter Commission to discuss extending term limits for members of the Municipal Utilities Commission and Rice Memorial Hospital Board.

Instead, the council approved a motion to hold a work session by Feb. 15 to discuss the pros and cons and other questions council members may have related to convening the Charter Commission.

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