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Christianson, Stevens differ on private contracting

WILLMAR -- Willmar City Council member Ron Christianson and City Administrator Charlene Stevens offered differing opinions during a committee meeting last week on the possibility of privately contracting for some city services.

The exchange took place during a Labor Relations Committee meeting when staff recommended the council fill a vacate public works operator position.

The vacancy occurred after Gary Manzer was promoted Aug. 14 to working foreman. He filled the position vacated by Scott Ledeboer, who was promoted to public works superintendent after longtime superintendent Ron Gilbertson retired.

Christianson has in the past urged the city to look at contracting out services. He said the word attrition has been brought up several times. He said it seems like some department jobs like street sweeping and mowing could be done privately.

"We don't get all that many chances until somebody retires,'' he said. "That happened this time. Where are we on that?''

Stevens said mowing is pretty much done by seasonal employees. But Christianson said he has seen full-time employees doing mowing.

"It's something to think about as time goes on because the money tree is slowly dwindling across the country. I know there could be some long-term savings doing some of this stuff privately. It's getting expensive to live in Willmar,'' he said, referring to increases in sewer, water and electric rates.

"We need to look at saving money where we can. I don't know if we should be doing this immediately. Is it something we need right now?''

The duties of the vacant surveyor technician position have been managed under council action by a contract with a private engineering firm. Stevens said the contract did not save any money and did not provide the same level of service as an internal employee.

"We have tried contracting out positions in (the city) organization before,'' she said. "The custodial is one and surveyor is another. We've not been to date successful with those contracts. If we want to look at any of that, then we need to define exactly what it is you're trying to contract out and what the acceptable level of service is. We've had diminished level of service.''

Christianson said he didn't bring up the topic for comparison.

"I bring it up because we've had a vacancy there for how long? There is still the vacancy of the surveyor tech,'' he said.

Committee member Denis Anderson pointed out the council directed staff to manage the duties with a contract. Stevens said the contract with Bollig Engineering of Willmar is still in force.

"Then why are they saying we're short back there?'' Christianson asked.

"Because the level of service we have with Bollig isn't the same level of service we had with the internal staff,'' Stevens replied.

Christianson said he wanted to see the details of that.

"It's easy to say that,'' he said.

Stevens said, "We went through that when we contracted it in 2012. We can provide that information again.''

Committee Chair Steve Ahmann said the committee can discuss the issue at another meeting.

"That's our job is to always look at new thoughts and ideas. There's nothing wrong with that,'' he said.

Christianson also asked Stevens when the council was going to be informed of Manzer's promotion.

Stevens said the promotion was not a department-level position.

In related discussion, Stevens said she is ready to move on filling the city engineer and surveyor positions under council direction given Aug. 20.

She recommended not filling the assistant engineer's position until the engineer's position is filled.