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City of Willmar department heads describe negative impacts from proposed budget cuts

Judy Thompson, an appraiser at the City Assessor’s office, works Thursday at her desk. The Minnesota Association of Assessing Officers educates assessors at conferences and week-long courses, and provides continuing education training for state accrediting and re-licensing of assessors. It’s one area that would be affected by a proposed reduction in travel, training and memberships. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Willmar city department heads have summarized what they believe are the benefits of city-funded employee organization memberships, training and certifications, and what they believe will be the detriments of cuts in those areas as proposed by Mayor Frank Yanish.

Yanish has proposed a 50 percent reduction in travel and training, and a 35 percent reduction in memberships and subscriptions in his proposed 2014 budget.

The cutbacks were informally discussed Monday afternoon by the four-member Finance Committee and other City Council members at the Municipal Utilities Auditorium. The meeting allowed all council members to comment on the reductions.

This was the second such discussion after the committee requested additional information two weeks ago on how the reductions would affect departments and services.

For context, City Administrator Charlene Stevens said the city in 2013 budgeted $74,090 for travel and training, or 0.48 percent of the $15.2 million general fund, and $9,400 in the $8.2 million wastewater treatment fund.

For 2014, Yanish would leave only $57,308 for travel and training, or 0.36 percent of the general fund.

The total 2013 dollars city-wide for memberships and subscriptions were $72,317 for the general fund and $4,100 in the wastewater treatment fund. For 2014, the mayor has proposed reducing all departments by 35 percent.

Dues for the League of Minnesota Cities, National League of Cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities represented about $48,000 in 2013, or 66 percent of the dues and subscriptions budget.

Finance Committee Chairman Denis Anderson asked what the committee and council want to do on these categories. Anderson said he thinks the committee consensus was that the cuts “were not going to fly as stated.’’

Anderson said he was not looking for any numbers Monday night but said it will all come forward at the final budget meeting in late November.

“We’re going to have to do some add-backs and I would be open to suggestion as to how we move forward,’’ he said.

Yanish, who also attended the meeting, said it was up to the council to decide if funding should be restored.

“Now it’s up to you to take this budget and work with it,’’ he said. “Do your thing with it. I just want the taxpayers to know where the money’s being spent.’’

Yanish described conferences, several of which he said he’s attended, as a party. Anderson said Yanish’s description of all conferences as a party was a gross mischaracterization.

In a total of 32 pages, department heads wrote their reasons for the expenditures and the effect of cutbacks.

Stevens said the reductions would result in limited travel and training and the city would not provide adequate opportunities for professional development or opportunities to represent the city at League or Coalition meetings.

Bruce Peterson, planning and development director and interim public works director, said a minimal portion of the budget historically is directed toward travel, conferences, subscriptions or memberships.

Yet, he said the expenditures help the city provide core functions by keeping necessary certifications in place for skilled personnel to do their jobs.

“I believe that reducing spending in these categories will have a negative impact on staff being able to maintain required certifications,’’ he wrote. “It also restricts our ability to adapt to change, and to learn more ways to improve efficiencies and economies of operation.’’

Stevens said the proposed cuts do not affect the Police Department. But Chief David Wyffels submitted a breakdown of training and related expenditures anyway. He said the department’s $2,000 request for memberships and subscriptions in 2014 is unchanged from 2013.

Fire Chief Gary Hendrickson said the reduction would have a catastrophic impact. Hendrickson said each category has been carefully reviewed to assure the fire department meets annual testing and inspection requirements outlined by the National Fire Protection Agency, Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Minnesota State Training Board and have not been artificially inflated to accommodate unneeded luxury items.

City Assessor Pat Erickson wrote that the Minnesota Association of Assessing Officers educates assessors at conferences and week-long courses, and provides continuing education training for state accrediting and re-licensing of assessors.

Finance Director Steve Okins said reductions in professional services would severely impact the ability to cover legal, auditing, interpretation services and any required testing and inspection services by independent third parties.

Council member Ron Christianson said he was busy Monday and wished the information had been emailed ahead of time. Council member Steve Ahmann said he did not receive the information until Monday afternoon and said it could have been emailed.

Anderson said he had the same concern Sunday night but said he read the information on the city’s website. Christianson said he was on the phone for three hours doing business Sunday night. Stevens said the information was mailed as usual on Friday.

Anderson said the council needs to set a policy whether or not training will be provided, and then let staff determine appropriate courses or training levels.

Christianson asked several questions about memberships. One question centered on the reason for WRAC-8’s $2,500 membership in a telecommunications organization.

The organization works on government regulations for local access channels, according to the summary. It said membership non-renewal could affect the quality of service or no service at all.

Stevens said staff receive current information, and learn about best practices in telecommunications and local access challenges, including cable TV franchises, which provide local access channel funding. She said the information and training generally come through membership.

“We’ll do what we are currently doing,’’ Stevens said. “But if there is a change or if we’re negotiating a franchise agreement and there’s something new out there, we won’t necessarily have access to that information or those resources if we’re not members.’’

The summaries can be read and video watched at the city’s website, and clicking on the Sept. 30 Finance Committee meeting date in the September calendar.

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