City OKs budget; cop job in limbo

Published 5:22 am Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The future of one Albert Lea police officer position was still undetermined Monday after the Albert Lea City Council approved its 2010 city budget.

The vote appropriated about $3.68 million of the total $13.59 million budget in expenditures to the Police Department; however, this is still $70,000 shy of what’s needed to fund a police officer position.

Albert Lea City Finance Director Rhonda Moen said the position could be saved, however, depending on city negotiations with the Teamsters union, which covers police employees, or whether costs can be shifted within the department’s budget. The problem is that the department’s budget is more than 80 percent in salaries, so this makes it more difficult to cut.

Email newsletter signup

Now that the budget has been approved, funds cannot be transferred from one department to another, unless the council approves otherwise, Moen said.

The council could also vote to appropriate a portion of the fire and police interest earnings to cover the position.

“Eight percent decrease in our budget really was a huge task,” 3rd Ward City Councilor Ellen Kehr said. “This was a long and difficult process.”

Kehr said cutting the budget by more than $1 million has been a situation that required extensive input from staff and citizens. She thanked everyone who has been a part of the process.

Albert Lea City Manager Victoria Simonsen explained the general fund budget of about $13.59 million is about $1.2 million less in 2010 than it was in 2009. The decrease came from cuts in all city departments, including the Police Department.

Thirty-three percent of the budget is funded by local government aid, while another 33 percent is funded through local property tax. The remainder is collected through licenses and permits, charges for services and other miscellaneous income.

At the Dec. 14 meeting, the council voted against a general fund levy increase, which would have put $70,000 in contingencies.

“It has been a tough year,” 1st Ward Councilor Vern Rasmussen said.

He asked whether money could flow within a department after the budget is approved.

Simonsen said it could.

Kehr pointed out that when the city started its budget process, two officers faced cuts.

“I personally felt that was probably too much, that you would not be able to do that,” she said.

One of the two officers that would have had to be pulled was the Southwest Middle School liaison officer to go back to patrol. The budget was readjusted to put this position back in.

Murtaugh said losing the school resource officer at Southwest would have caused the city to lose joint funding from the Albert Lea School District to help pay for that position.

“I believe we have options yet before talking about losing the second position,” he said. “I hope that we can still come to an agreement between your bargaining unit and the city that we can go forward without having to cut a position.”

Murtaugh said four years ago he went through the department’s Citizens Academy so he could gain a better understanding of what officers do.

“I appreciate the job you guys do,” he said.

The Monday vote came after a last-minute plea by members of the Police Department during the public forum portion of the meeting. Though the meeting was not as packed as the previous December meeting, officers lined the back of the room.

Officer Tim Harves, on behalf of the Teamsters 320 union, asked the council to take a hard look at the budget and for councilors to show constituents that safety is a priority.

Harves said the officers are public safety-minded people not just when they are on duty, but 24 hours a day.

They are often the first to arrive at scenes and are valuable assets to the community, he said.

Officer Jason Taylor reiterated that he thinks fewer police officers on the street would affect public safety. The city needs to focus on keeping the basics in its budget.

The Police Department makes up more than 30 percent of the city’s total budget.

Councilor Al Brooks said though he voted in favor of adopting the budget, he wrestled with the decision. He said he doesn’t feel comfortable with how the money within the budget was appropriated with some of the categories.

Teamsters mediator Mike Golan said he will be coming back to Albert Lea Jan. 5 for the next vote on an offer with the officers.