Task force offers its budget suggestions

Published 9:00 am Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Collaboration and cooperation. Cost reductions. Revenue enhancement. Public safety.

After meeting several hours during a span of five meetings, the Albert Lea budget task force on Monday presented a series of findings and recommendations to the Albert Lea City Council about how to save money in the city’s budget.

Local businessman Michael Moore, who was chosen as the group’s spokesman, said the 12-member citizen task force took the challenge of reviewing the budget and coming up with solutions. However, when the task force convened for its first meeting in March, the members were not sure of the scope or the mission of their work.

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Everyone had some issues they felt needed looked at, and the diversity of the group, in terms of backgrounds and perspectives, served the task force well, Moore said.

“I will tell you we did not all agree on every issue, but every member of the committee was dedicated to helping our city solve these problems in a thoughtful, common sense manner without detracting from our quality of life we have all come to enjoy,” he said.

Reading from a memo directed to the mayor, council and citizens of the city, he explained how the task force arrived at its conclusions.

He said the task force received input from several sources, including the eight ward meetings attended by 110 residents, the survey about the city budget filled out by 364 residents and from other correspondence with residents and city staff.

“Though this would not be considered a pleasant or fun task, it allowed all of us a front-line education on how our city works and how we pay for it,” Moore said.

He noted he thinks the community will benefit from the input given.

The group was formed in response to possible cuts to local government aid given by the state in the amounts of $500,000 in 2009 and about $1 million in 2010. Cuts of $400,000 in December of 2008 have already been given.

“The committee feels the best course of long-term action is to work diligently to reduce Albert Lea’s dependence on local government aid to zero,” Moore said.

Collaboration and cooperation

Moore said the task force wanted to encourage collaboration and cooperation with other units of government, including Freeborn County, townships, school districts, other cities, counties and the state. It also wanted to encourage collaboration between nonprofit and government agencies and between city departments, to consider areas such as purchasing, training, equipment utilization, staff utilization, shared positions, shared facilities and shared knowledge.

Some examples of this would include the purchasing of office supplies and of park, street and utility materials. It would also include cross training and utilization of equipment and personnel between departments who have different busy periods.

Moore said people with Sentence to Serve could be utilized for park and building maintenance and collaboration could be done between Parks and Recreation, the Family Y, Albert Lea Community Education and booster clubs to eliminate duplication of services in youth and recreational programs.

Successes of collaboration and cooperation include the recently formed shared information technology position with Freeborn County and the shared fire department with the Albert Lea Township, he said.

Cost reductions

Under this category, Moore said the task force wants to continue the pay and hiring strategies implemented by the city including a hiring stall put into place in 2009. It wants to evaluate any current or future open positions, evaluate current management structures in all departments to look for consolidation opportunities and take steps to preserve positions necessary for vital services.

The task force suggested evaluating employee benefit plans and their comparability to the private sector’s benefit plans in the community, along with closely monitoring the productivity of seasonal employees and avoiding overtime whenever possible.

Regarding energy and green initiatives, the task force suggested adopting an energy conservation program similar to the successful one implemented by Albert Lea School District 241. The group also recommended conducting energy audits of all the facilities and aggressively pursuing grants and funding to finance large energy saving projects.

Moore encouraged the city to continue the work of the Green Committee already in place.

Regarding outsourcing, Moore said the task force wants the city to evaluate the necessity of consultant outsourcing and evaluate the functions such as tree trimming and maintenance that are provided by the city.

He said the task force agreed to eliminate discretionary funding to organizations, replace paid maintenance workers with volunteers to do flowerbeds and to provide more opportunities for volunteers to provide seasonal services.

In this category, the city should build on the strategies already put in place by the city, including the hiring stall and evaluation of all open positions.

Revenue enhancement

Moore said the majority of the committee was opposed to raising property taxes to solve the problem, but they did identify several opportunities for revenue enhancement.

He said the task force supported increasing fees at all facilities for nonresidents of the city, assessing payments in lieu of taxes to nonprofit landowners who use city services and using creativity and visioning to alternate funding sources. This would include the creation of specific utilities or assessment districts to pay for maintenance or improvements.

The task force also supported evaluating the fees for all entities or facilities that do not cover their own costs and marketing the city’s facilities for appropriate rentals.

Moore said the group supported enacting a surcharge to cover extra cost items such as mosquito spraying, the fountains near Katherine Island, the Christmas lights downtown and the algae treatment of Fountain Lake.

Public safety

The spokesman said police and fire protection scored as the top two most valued services the city provides, but the committee felt there were some recommendations to give to improve efficiency within the police and fire departments.

In the Police Department, the task force recommended continuing to evaluate filling open positions, continuing to evaluate how animal control and parking enforcement services are staffed and sharing training and staffing costs with other agencies and city departments when possible.

In the fire and inspection department, he said, the task force agreed to keep a full-time presence in the fire station so that at least one truck can function upon receiving a fire call.

The group agreed to add duties to the maintenance and inspection areas so the fire staff has responsibilities for the majority of their on-duty time. This would include taking over inspection functions. The task force also agreed the city should continue and increase collaboration with Albert Lea Township and other fire departments for training, equipment and facilities.

Albert Lea Mayor Mike Murtaugh and the City Council thanked the task force for their time coming up with the recommendations.

Albert Lea City Manager Victoria Simonsen said the council has a budget retreat Thursday night to start looking at some of the recommendations and to show staff support for which ones they feel are feasible. She reassured the group the recommendations will not get dropped in a file.