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City of Winona to cut taxes by 1.4% (08/28/2013)
By Chris Rogers
The City Council vetted the 2014 budget on Monday night, but most of the decision-making work on the budget had already been done. City Manager Judy Bodway whittled down spending requests from various departments by a total of $2.6 million, according to city staff, to balance the budget and reduce the tax levy by 1.4 percent.

"I am pleased to present to you a balanced budget," Bodway announced to the council. The difficult and political task of weighing what the city needs most, what it can afford, and what will be left on the cutting room floor is largely hashed out in meetings between the city manager and department heads.

At his first City Council budget meeting since taking the Fire Chief's badge this summer, Curt Bittle was pleasantly relieved after council members finished a short questioning session. "I think he found me much harder," Bodway joked.

Park maintenance, streets, sewer, planning, central garage, police and fire were among the departments that faced the biggest reductions from what department heads requested and what the city manager ultimately recommended. Under the recommended budget, Parks and Recreation received $180,000 less than requested for park property improvements and $95,000 less than requested for outsourced park maintenance work. The fire department received $31,000 less than requested for building maintenance and equipment. The city manager budgeted $60,000 less for water department depreciation, which are funds set aside to replace aging water lines, than what department heads requested. In the past, financial advisors have encouraged the city to set aside more funds for sewer and water line replacement.

A decision not to recommend the planning department's $100,000 request to revamp the aging city zoning code drew the attention of council member Allyn Thurley. An overhaul of city zoning was discussed in 2011, when staff suggested a new zoning map, a new look at parking requirements, bicycle policy, and more. The six-figure expenditure would pay for consultants to aid the city in rewriting the zoning ordinance, city staff explained.

"What would that do if we put that back in?" Thurley asked.

"You would have to find some way to fund it," replied Bodway.

Finance Director Mary Burrichter explained that the city manager "went through and made reductions, and that was one of the reductions that was made."

Zoning is an important issue that has generated attention in the past and would make things easier for the city going into the future, Thurley said. He agreed to the decision, but gave staff "a strong recommendation to put it back in for 2015."

Spending for a number of big ticket items was delayed and planned for coming years. Some of those items include $618,000 for Bambenek Field upgrades, $600,000 for sewer plant maintenance, and $700,000 for various street department supplies, vehicles, and equipment.

"Cutting back on potential new employees to provide additional services, and the whole issue of capital equipment" were among the hardest decisions to make, Bodway said in an interview. "Telling a department head that they can't have a piece of equipment this year or a project or staff members because we can't afford it is always hard," she added.

A couple of state changes made the budgeting process slightly less difficult this year. Winona received over a half-million more dollars in Local Government Aid from the state of Minnesota this year. A partial exemption from state sales tax for cities will save Winona $118,000, Burrichter told the council. However, much of the savings is from taxes on electrical and natural gas bills, and rate hikes by Xcel Energy have made those savings effectively disappear, Burrichter explained.

The city has also made plans for significant street repairs in coming years. The city plans to spend over $1.7 million to rebuild streets in 2014 and $600,000 to $800,000 each of the next four years. Council member Paul Double and Planning Commission member LaVerne Olson encouraged the Public Works Director Keith Nelson to consider pairing sewer examinations and repairs with the street work. Nelson explained that no inspection of sewers lines is planned and said that his department has a good idea of what sort of condition pipes are in across the city.

Mayor Mark Peterson and the City Council praised Bodway and the city department heads for their hard work in preparing the budget before giving preliminary approval for the budget. The council will formally vote on the budget proposal on September 3 and make a final budget approval in December. 


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