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Ex-Murray councilman criticizes budget

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He may have been the only person to comment on Murray's $21.4 million fiscal 1999

budget during a public hearing Tuesday night - but former City Councilman Norm Nielsen certainly wasn't intimidated by the lack of reinforcements.Nielsen minced few words as he warned the council that increasing spending by 5 percent when revenues are only up 3 percent is a blueprint for fiscal trouble.

He also identified a couple of budgetary "black holes" he thinks are draining the city's pocketbook and criticized Mayor Dan Snarr's recent decision to move his offices upstairs in City Hall.

And that wasn't all.

"By the time we get to this point, the budget is cut and dried," said Nielsen, who decided not to run for re-election last fall. "So the budget hearing is moot."

It was vintage Nielsen, a councilman would remark later, recalling the former councilman's outspoken opposition to anything that violated his conservative fiscal sensibilities.

The budget passed unanimously without a lot of debate.

About the closest thing to a controversy came when the rest of the council overrode Councilman John Ward's opposition to hiring a part-time legislative analyst and communications specialist for the mayor's office.

That item, which will cost the city about $40,000 a year for salary and benefits, was plugged into the fiscal 1999 spending plan along with a $30,000 increase in county-collected zoo, arts and parks tax revenue.

The new tax money will be used to supplement the city's performing arts agenda, provide additional advertising for arts programs and supplement the city "arts in education" program for local at-risk youth.

Councilman Gary Ferrero gently objected to his former colleague's characterization of the city's budget as an unalterable document cast in fiscal stone.

"The budget is not moot," he said reprovingly. "We've made three changes in it already."

Nielsen wasn't all slings, arrows and adversity, however.

He enthusiastically commended the council for corking the mayor's proposal to institute a new month-ly fee for garbage collection and curbside recycling.

And he was happy the budget didn't try to fund a proposed recreation center this year.

But those "black holes . . ."

One of them, said Nielsen, is the section of the public works budget set aside for road cut repairs.

"Every year, it goes up," he said. "The repairs are not properly finished," as evidenced by the dips in the road where the cuts settle lower than the road surface.

And the other black hole, he said, is the central garage budget - which is up 25 percent.

Add that to a 5 percent spending increase while revenues are going up at a slower rate, Nielsen warned, and "you could wind up getting yourself in trouble."

The former councilman also said he thinks Snarr took up space needed by the police department when he moved to a larger set of offices upstairs in City Hall when other city functions were relocated to the new public works complex.

He also said the mayor "has become much, much more inaccessible" than when his office was by the front door. Snarr, who has stressed an "open door" policy since taking office, chose not to respond to the former councilman's complaint.