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Willmar, Minn., mayor opposes filling 3 vacant city employee positions

WILLMAR -- Mayor Frank Yanish told the City Council's Labor Relations Committee that he opposes filling all three employee vacancies that have occurred in the assessing department, at the new wastewater treatment plant and in the engineering department.

Yanish made his comment during a two-hour meeting Wednesday when the committee also considered authorizing an organizational assessment by consultant Springsted Inc., and a request to have the full council be engaged in labor contract negotiations.

Yanish said he will not sign the City Council minutes if the council votes to fill the three positions, as recommended by department directors. Yanish said he would favor filling two vacancies at the most.

When committee member Denis Anderson asked why, Yanish said budgets are an extreme concern.

"We have to do more with less. We have to work harder,'' he said. When a vacancy occurs, "you don't automatically fill the position,'' he said.

The council could override Yanish with six affirmative votes under the city charter, Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday said in an interview Thursday.

City staff is asking the vacancies of clerk appraisal assistant, wastewater treatment plant operator, and engineering department technician be filled. Staff said all three positions are included in 2013 budget requests.

City Administrator Charlene Stevens recommended filling the vacancies. Accompanying the requests were written job descriptions, duties and other documentation.

Since the 1980s, the assessing department has had 4 staff members. In February 2011, one assessor retired, leaving 3 assessors, plus a seasonal .3 full-time equivalent to meet data entry requirements.

In his written request for the assessor vacancy, Halliday addressed the issue of possibly privatizing the position and he said past conversations with local appraisers indicated some have 6-figure incomes. Contracted services would most likely not be cheaper than city staff, Halliday wrote.

In 2010, city and Kandiyohi County officials discussed possibly merging their assessing departments. Stevens, who began her duties Aug. 1, 2011, said she has talked with County Administrator Larry Kleindl about a merger. She said Kleindl told her that the county has a lot on its plate and is not interested at this time.

Stevens said the work has to get done and she said the city cannot delay a decision without affecting services.

The new wastewater treatment plant began operations in August 2010. The 11-member staff includes 4 operators. However, one operator retired, leaving 3 for the past two months.

Stevens, Public Works Director Holly Wilson and plant superintendent Colleen Thompson requested the vacancy be filled. Stevens said this was the second time that the request has come to the committee.

In her request, Wilson wrote, among other things, that plant consultants Donohue and Associates said a staffing level that included 4 operators was adequate. Thompson said the current reduced staff is struggling to get by with plant maintenance and staff members are still trying "to get their arms around'' the plant's operations.

Also, Wilson requested the engineering technician/surveyor position be filled. She said, among other things, that the position is unique with a specific set of skills and duties that are not easily shifted to other staff. Wilson said training a current employee would take two years of full-time schooling.

Anderson and Doug Reese said department directors are the experts and are telling the council what is needed. "I understand budgets are tight but we have three essential jobs,'' said Reese.

During discussion, the committee directed Stevens to again talk to the county about assessing services.

Regarding the wastewater vacancy, the committee voted to fill the position.

Regarding the engineering tech vacancy, the committee agreed to have staff determine the cost-effectiveness of privatizing the position.

In other business, the committee recommended the council hire Springsted to conduct an organizational assessment similar to Springsted's organizational assessments for Kandiyohi County and the Willmar Municipal Utilities.

Springsted's written proposal estimated the cost at $18,750. Committee members Anderson, Reese and Tim Johnson expressed their support, and Johnson said the cost was reasonable.

In other business, the committee took no action on a request made last September by council member Ron Christianson to consider engaging the full council in labor contract negotiations. The council discussed the request Oct. 3 and voted against bringing all council members into contract talks.

Committee Chair Steve Ahmann said he was open to further discussion at a future council meeting.

When the meeting began, Ahmann allowed citizens David Herzer and John Sullivan to address the committee on the topic of labor negotiations.

Herzer suggested the full council as a committee of the whole be involved.

Sullivan addressed the contract remaining to be negotiated between the council and the bargaining unit consisting of department heads and confidential employees. Sullivan said those employees should not be considered as members of one bargaining unit.

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