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Hike to staff meal allowance at utility squashed

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council this week vetoed a decision by the Municipal Utilities Commission to increase meal allowances for utility employees conducting work-related instate and outstate business.

The city charter gives the council veto authority over Utilities Commission actions.

But utility General Manager Bruce Gomm says he is concerned that the council is micromanaging by vetoing the increase and Gomm said the council's action was inappropriate.

The Utilities Commission voted April 25 to increase the daily meal allowance for employees conducting work-related business from $40 per day to $70 per day for instate business and increased the allowance from $50 per day to $100 per day for outstate business.

The council initially tabled the increases on May 2. Council member Denis Anderson said the increases seemed excessive and he asked that the matter be referred to the Labor Relations Committee where a utility representative could explain the reason for the increases.

City Administrator Michael Schmit reminded council members Monday night that they had tabled the commission's action "and under our rules and procedures, if you do not act on that tonight, it's automatically approved.''

If the council has an issue with the commission's action, the only option is to veto and set up a meeting with the utility, which Schmit said he has been unable to arrange during the last two weeks.

Anderson said he raised the issue and said the situation was unfortunate that it had come to the point of a veto. What the council really wanted, he said, was a meeting "so that we could understand why those went so high. It seemed high.''

Council member Steve Ahmann said Utilities Commission members -- nominated by the mayor and approved by the council -- are not paid for their hard and good work, which Ahmann said he appreciates. But he said the council was prudent to bring the issue back to committee for discussion.

Council member Ron Christianson said the issue was a concern of his and citizens at-large, and said he wanted to sit down and talk about it. He said the Utilities Commission can always reintroduce it.

The council first voted to take the issue off the table and then unanimously vetoed the increases. City Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday said 5 affirmative council member votes are required to override the commission's action.

Council members were told the commission's old rates will remain in effect.

Gomm said the commission's meal allowance increases followed the utility's recent 2010 financial audit performed by Conway, Deuth and Schmiesing of Willmar. The auditors pointed out a number of accounting practices and policies that should be reviewed.

One practice the auditors recommended for review was the meal allowance policy. The current allowances were set in 2005. This allowance is for employees and does not indicate if the policy covers commissioners as well. To avoid any confusion, the auditors recommended the commission revise the policy.

In an interview, Gomm said the commission was updating its personnel policy handbook to address the concern raised by auditors who said meal costs for employees on business had exceeded the limits.

Gomm said he was concerned that the council is micromanaging by vetoing the commission's action. He said the commission is a qualified entity "and for (the council) to be second-guessing what our policies are to me as general manager feels very inappropriate.''

Gomm said some cities are more expensive, the highest of which is probably Washington, D.C., where it's sometimes difficult to keep daily meal totals below the old outstate limit of $50 per day.

Gomm said the intent of the change was to make sure that the utility was addressing all possible situations and would never be out of compliance with the audit. He said the change did not authorize employees to spend that much money, but was only designed as an upper limit for meal expenses.

"Not that they have to expend that amount or that they would get it if they didn't spend it, either,'' Gomm said. "So it was after discussion and our experiences from traveling into those areas that we would need to set those limits to make sure that we would be able to stay within them.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150