Willmar tax levy jump of $1.2 million for 2022 given final approval
The Willmar City Council approved the 2022 tax levy and budget on Monday. The levy was raised $1.2 million over the 2021 levy.
There was no in-person public comment, though a letter from one resident was read into the record.
Finance director Steve Okins presented the levy and budget prior to the council vote.
The levy was set at $7,313,672, a $1,228,382 increase over the 2021 levy. The levy increase can be broken down into three specific areas.
The vast majority of the tax levy will go to the city's general fund, which pays for such items as employee salaries and department budgets. The general fund portion of the levy went up $419,027 over 2021.
The two other levy additions for next year are specifically for street improvements and the proposed city hall project. The tax money earmarked for those items cannot be used for anything else.
About 4.5% of the total levy, or $323,742, will go directly to street improvement projects. Interim Public Works Director Gary Manzer said after the meeting that now that he knows that extra money will be available, he can start the planning process for additional work.
Another 6.64% or $485,613, will be used to pay one year's worth of debt payment for a city hall project with an estimated cost of $10 million. What that proposed project will actually entail is not certain.
The council has decided to restart the planning process from the beginning, including site selection and whether the project will include the Willmar Community Center. The most recent plan under consideration had been a joint facility with the Willmar Community Center.
"I really struggled with the increase in the levy," said Councilor Audrey Nelsen, though in the end she decided to go forward with it. "I do think it is the responsible thing to do this year."
If the council wants to continue including the city hall debt payment and increased street improvement dollars as a separate line item in the levy, council members will need to vote on it annually, Okins said after the meeting.
The 2022 budget was approved at $48,981,627. The total budget includes $11.7 million for capital improvements, $3.69 million for debt service and $9.67 million for the wastewater treatment plant operations.
To balance the capital improvement budget, city staff removed or reduced funding for projects by $4,894,500, including funding for improvements for the City Auditorium, new radio equipment and turnout gear for the Fire Department and work on the Civic Center parking lot. This left approximately $89,000 in the capital improvement budget for any additional capital expenses that might arise in the next year.
At Monday's meeting, the council approved staff applying for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund the radio equipment for the Fire Department.
Councilor Rick Fagerlie also asked that $7,500 be added back into the capital budget to fund a fountain for the Swansson Field stormwater pond. The ask was approved unanimously by the council.
While the tax levy cannot be changed now that the council has voted to set it, the budget can be amended throughout the year, Okins said. This means the city can later decide to fund a capital project initially cut from the budget or reallocate money from one place to another.
The letter read into the record from resident Justin Mattern requested the council look at budget cuts instead of increasing spending. Mattern said the council seemed to be focusing on shiny, new things instead of taking care of the infrastructure and streets the city already had.
"I implore you to consider the priorities of the citizens of Willmar," Mattern wrote in his letter, which was read aloud by Mayor Marv Calvin. "I've had the opportunity to speak with numerous residents who feel their voice is not heard and our city priorities and spending habits have shifted dramatically to the desires of the middle and upper class. I fear leadership may be losing touch with the average person who is simply trying to work hard and support a family while being crushed by an already overbearing government."
Calvin asked the city administrator to look into the budget numbers that Mattern had included in his letter, as there were questions regarding whether the numbers were accurate. Okins, who assisted administrator Leslie Valiant, said he is still trying to investigate and analyze where the numbers came from and will try to communicate with Mattern.
"To look at just the expenditure side sometimes is not entirely the whole picture," Okins said, as revenue that comes in might end up paying for those expenditures and they may not require additional tax money.
The city's budget also includes items such as the Wastewater Treatment Plant, debt payments, capital projects, local option sales tax projects and special funds such as coronavirus relief money which can cause the budget to rise and fall annually, sometimes by quite a lot.