by Sarah Squires
No new picnic tables for 2010
The Winona City Council pinched a bit from its 2010 budget Monday night, but a majority of members said they’ll keep the five percent property tax increase as a safety net for an uncertain coming year.
Council members coupled recommended cuts with their own suggested cuts and pared off about $130,000 from the $32.5 million budget, including cuts to the city’s annual donations to the Great River Shakespeare Festival, Winona County Historical Society and the Dakota Homecoming. Monday night, council members also saved $10,000 by eliminating replacement picnic tables for 2010.
City leaders also instructed staff to impose a hiring freeze, even on police and fire workers. If city staff feel an open position is imperative, said council members, the question on whether to fill it should be posed to the City Council.
A majority of council members felt that even though, with Monday’s cuts, the property tax increase could be reduced from five percent to three percent, the five percent increase should remain in place to help ease expected cuts in state aid next year.
Council member Deb Salyards was opposed to the five percent increase, however, and said that she will not vote for the increase when the council adopts its budget on December 21. “It’s easy to say ‘it’s just X amount of dollars,’” she said, adding that some of the city’s contributions to the arts, like the Frozen River Film Festival and the Great River Shakespeare Festival should be up and running without so much city assistance. “Those things need to be looked at,” she said. “Seriously looked at. To me, that [spending] is hard to justify.”
“I agree that a dollar is a dollar and it affects everybody,” said Mayor Jerry Miller. But, he said, his concern was with mid-year 2010, when the city may find itself without much of its state aid payment. If the city could simply save some of the five percent property tax increase for that unknown, he said, it will be put to good use.
With the state in dire financial times, council member Tim Breza warned that the money saved from the levy increase will only be a drop in the bucket compared to the cuts the city will be faced with. “Five percent will disappear in a heartbeat, and we’ll be looking for more money,” he said.
Council member George Borzyskowski said that the city needed to maintain its essential services. “Whether I’m paying five percent or zero, when I call 911, I expect someone to be there,” he said. He said that people criticize the past actions of city leaders, such as the large box retailers that moved into the East End industrial park. But, he asked, if we didn’t have those large scale retailers and related property tax, how big would the increase in property taxes for everyone else be?
Breza suggested several of the new cuts, including the replacement picnic tables. He balked when he met some resistance from other council members. “If we can’t get by with a couple less picnic tables,” he said, “we’re in serious trouble.”
Council members eventually agreed to removing funding for replacement picnic tables. City Manager Eric Sorensen said that the council will likely have to meet monthly for hours in the coming year to examine its budget and anticipate cuts, and scour each city service for places to spend less.