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Budget discussion gets personal between Willmar, Minn., mayor and committee member

WILLMAR — Discussion about $228,000 in across-the-board cuts in city staff memberships, dues, travel, training, and in professional services in Mayor Frank Yanish's 2014 proposed $44.6 million budget got personal between Yanish and City Council member Audrey Nelsen at this week's Finance Committee meeting.

During the hour-long meeting, Nelsen, a committee member, said training and certification were important for staff to carry out their jobs. Nelsen asked Yanish at least four times to explain and clarify his reasons for the proposed cuts.

Yanish, who twice made reference to himself as a country boy, said he was not used to the way that the city does its budget. He repeated several times that the committee can do whatever it wants to the budget.

But he said it would no longer be his budget and he didn't want his name on it, but that it would be the Audrey budget.

"You can change anything that you want to. You can put whatever amount you want to put in there, Audrey,'' Yanish said to Nelsen.

"You don't need to speak to me,'' Nelsen said.

"I am speaking to you, and I hope you listen to me. This committee and council have the right to do that. I just don't want my name attached to it if you do change it,'' he said.

Committee Chairman Denis Anderson said across-the-board cuts "just don't work.''

"You don't have to do the across-the-board cuts,'' said Yanish. "I'm proposing something and that's all that I've done.''

Anderson said the committee understood what Yanish was saying.

"Honestly, we're not trying to pick on you. We're trying to understand how it will work,'' said Anderson.

"Audrey's trying to pick on me,'' said Yanish.

"Mr. Mayor, I resent that remark,'' Nelsen said. "I simply was asking for clarification.''

The exchanges took place as the Finance Committee began the annual examination of the mayor's proposed budget, which Yanish presented as information at the Aug. 12 Finance Committee meeting. The process ends in December with council approval of the budget and certification of the city property tax levy to the Kandiyohi County Auditor's Office.

Anderson reminded committee members that the council asked City Administrator Charlene Stevens to research the effect of Yanish's cuts. Anderson said he invited Yanish to join Monday's discussion at the table.

Stevens presented two memoranda: one analyzing the effect on dues, subscriptions and memberships; and one on travel and training. Finance Director Steve Okins presented one on professional services.

Stevens said all dues, memberships and subscriptions in all departments would be reduced 35 percent. Stevens said the city does not offer regular staff training on customer service, supervision, harassment, employment law or management basics.

Stevens said the city relies on staff to get most of their training from their professional associations. If the ability to participate in professional associations is limited along with limits in travel and training, the city will not be providing adequate training to staff. She said the reductions could affect the city's ability to recruit and retain staff in the future.

Stevens said the mayor proposes a 50 percent reduction in travel and training in all departments except the Police Department. Stevens said the reduction would severely limit an already limited budget.

Stevens said the city struggles to maintain minimum certifications and certainly would not be developing staff for future opportunities or equipping them with new skills for new tasks. Stevens said she has been working with Kandiyohi County and the Willmar Municipal Utilities on developing basic management training. But without funds, the city would not be able to continue that collaboration.

Yanish asked how the cuts affect services to citizens. "We're limiting but we're not taking away anything,'' he said.

Yanish said he has been in the tire business for 21 years and never attended a training organization.

"Maybe it shows,'' he said. "This old country boy does the best that he can.''

Anderson said there are areas where flat across-the-board cuts will not work. He said the cuts would ultimately take away people's opportunity to learn how to do things better, and perhaps cheaper. "Ultimately it will impact the residents,'' Anderson said.

In his memo, Okins said professional services in all departments, after reclassifications for janitorial services and proposed reductions by Stevens, would be reduced 35 percent.

Okins said the reductions would severely affect the ability to cover legal, auditing, interpretive and required testing and inspection services by independent third parties.

Anderson said Yanish did not propose a balanced budget. Stevens said the mayor did not provide direction on re-appropriating the $228,000.

Anderson said the committee was getting nowhere.

The discussion concluded with the committee requesting detail of the 2013 budget; 2013 actual expenditures to date; and 2012 actual expenditures for travel, training, memberships, dues and professional services.

Also, the committee requested anticipated 2014 expenditures, noting whether those are mandatory or only beneficial for productivity.

In other business the committee set the 2014 preliminary property tax levy at $4,139,734, which is unchanged from 2013 due to reinstatement of levy limits, according to Okins. He said the levy cannot be increased but can be reduced.

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