Where’s the public process on City’s budget cuts?

NDDC Board Chair Keith Covey’s letter to the Mayor and City Council last week (Nfld News here; NDDC blog here) notes that

Keith Covey …given the size of our financial challenge and the pursuit of cost reduction-driven solutions, we all realize that cuts will not be painless. To that end, the values and priorities of the citizens of Northfield should be the guiding factors in determining recommendations for which services should be maintained and which services could be eliminated.

The NDDC requests that a formal, open, two-way process be conducted to provide citizens the opportunity to share their values and priorities for funding decisions that will impact their municipal services.

The reaction by two councilors to the layoff of Marj Evans-de-Carpio (Nfld News story, Interpreter layoff criticized) indicates there’s some support for Covey’s position:

At a council meeting in May, both Zweifel and Buckheit voted for to approve “general direction” of the city’s budget reduction plan, but said they felt discouraged from pulling single items out of the overall plan for discussion.

Both councilors also voiced frustration about how the city has approached planning for the cuts. “I realize the need to make short-term cuts, but we’ve never had the bigger picture conversation about our values and priorities in the community,” said Buckheit.

The Northfield City Council recently approved its Strategic Direction and Goals for 2010 and the first three goals under Direction #1 all have to do with citizen communications. ‘Twould be cool if they could be put into play for the budget cuts.

84 thoughts on “Where’s the public process on City’s budget cuts?”

  1. I’m a big fan of setting up a transparent and efficient system whereby citizen input is welcomed (really welcomed–not just that the board members sit silently while citizens talk, then proceed to ignore whatever was just said). I think local governmental agencies get into trouble when they try to circumvent this step. There are a host of issues around how to get this input, how to make sure one or a few individuals or powerful groups don’t hijack the platform etc.–so it’s not straightforward. However, hard as it is, such a process is necessary.

  2. Agreed, Kathie, it’s not easy but it can be done. And as long as citizens see an honest ongoing effort that public officials are willing to ‘learn their way’ into it, I think folks will be forgiving of stumbles along the way.

  3. At last week’s NDDC Forum, Mayor Mary Rossing suggested that citizens with budget cut suggestions could send her an email. City Administrator Joel Walinski said ideas could be submitted via the ‘Tell the City about’ form on the City’s website.

    While it’s fine to have those private methods for input, it’s wholly unacceptable to not have a public, visible, transparent process as well, both F2F and online.

    That said, however, there have been two submissions to the Nfld News lately that offer some public input:

    1. Norman Butler in a guest column in this week’s Nfld News titled Postpone construction of Safety Center project.

    Asked repeatedly by City Hall is “what services are essential and what can be cut?” Our leaders’ answers have been library hours, flowers baskets on Division Street, the Spanish interpreter and community events. Consider this from Steve Underdahl of Faribault City Council “Staffing is so important this time around because it makes up about three-quarters of the budget. If the city wants to make big cuts, it will have to make staffing changes — either by cutting hours or by cutting people.” Or both. We, too, in Northfield can only look to our elected representatives.  A moratorium on capital spending, pay cuts and staff cuts in City Hall are now urgently needed to address the budget shortfall and to minimize the already onerous tax burden on our community – and to get us through these doldrums.

    2. Ray Cox in a May 28 Nfld News Letter to the Editor titled In the budget battle, keep core services.

    I encourage the City Council to explore creative solutions to budget reductions without compromising public safety. For example, the city might partner with the hospital or school district to provide human resources management and information technology services, resulting in substantial personnel cost savings to the city. I suggest that the city explore combining the positions of community development and economic development into one position, again making a substantial savings in personnel. I for one do not want to see a police officer let go while we keep a planning or development office fully staffed.

    The city has listed a yearly three day furlough for employees as a cost saving option. I suggest that is a good start, but may need to be expanded. Consideration should be given to a rotating 10 to 15 percent work time reduction, staffing City Hall daily but at a reduced level. It is also a time to eliminate most paid consultants, seminars and travel from city budgets.

      1. Jane and Griff –

        The Chamber Board invited the NDDC Board to attend Friday morning’s meeting. If I can recall correctly, those present (along with Mayor Rossing and Administrator Walinski) were: Jim Gleason, James Schlichting, Jeff Hasse, Joe Grundhoefer, Jerry Anderson, Ross Currier, Alan Norton, Julie Bixby, Joey Robison, and Kathy Feldbrugge.

        Alan, Kathy and I were asked to change our names to something beginning with the letter “J”.

        Although I believe it was the intention of the meeting’s organizers to keep the group small, I can’t imagine Chamber Board President Jim Gleason turning anyone away from the meeting.

        I took four pages of notes. If I have nothing better to do this weekend, perhaps I’ll type them up and post them on-line.

        However, it seemed to me that the Chamber and NDDC Boards’ comments were built on themes that are increasingly being expressed by a variety of people throughout the community on the editorial pages of the Northfield News and the comment sections of LoGroNo.

  4. That rank-ordered General Fund divisions of the City’s 2010 Budget (PDF) is one way to view the City’s budget. Lest folks think we’re spending all of our money on the Police and the Library, tho, there’s another way to view it, ie, via the categories used in the City’s audit.

    For example, in the 2008 audit (see pages 165 – 168 of the .pdf, although they are numbered 91 – 94 of the actual document), categories are:

    General Government
    Public Safety
    Public Works
    Recreation
    Government Buildings & Facilities
    Other Financing Uses
    Transfers Out

    So breaking it down that way allows for a different kind of summary:

    • * $3.4 million on General Government (Administration, Engineering, Finance, Human Resources, Information Technology, Community Development, Economic Development, Housing Development, Planning, and the City Clerk)
    • * $3.4 million on Public Safety (Police and Fire)
    • * $1.1 million on Streets and Streetlights
    • * $1.8 million on Recreation (the Library, Athletic Facilities, Parks, the Outdoor Pool, and the Ice Arena)
  5. Griff: The trouble is that you can’t usually tell from the budget exactly where the money is going. For example, you won’t see “$100,000 for a few toilets at the Archer House” or “$33,000 for someone to help illegal aliens fill out applications.” You won’t see “$38,000 for a YouTube video that a lot of high school kids would probably be happy to make a better one for free,” either, so thanks for bringing that one up.

    By the way, I think I saw somewhere something about $64,000 for some trees on Fourth Street. Is there any truth to that one, or was it hyperbolic?

  6. Scott, I agree, which is why the City needs to implement a variety of ways for citizens to understand/make sense of where their tax dollars go.

    As for the $64k for 4th St. trees, that’s hyperbolic. Small trees, like the ones planted on 5th St., are cheap.

  7. Today’s Nfld News: Council talks budget reduction priorities

    After wading through $350,000 in short-term budget cuts already in May, Tuesday’s discussion was an opportunity for the council to develop several “big picture” policies to guide the city over the next several years.

    Those polices may include increased revenue sources, like streetlight utility or franchise fees; involving the public in the budget-cutting process; reducing the number of city ordinances, which cost the city money to implement and enforce; and even selling city property that the city considers financially burdensome.

    Among the properties that could be sold? Small, undeveloped tracts of land located throughout the city, Mayor Mary Rossing said on Wednesday. During the meeting on Tuesday, council members also suggested selling city-owned property that are “drains” on the city’s finances, but don’t provide a high degree of public benefit.

  8. Dale Gehring, 4th Ward city council candidate, has a budget-related guest column in today’s Nfld News

    I believe the prudent way to begin this process is by moving toward a “Lean” business operation philosophy for our city. “Lean” is a set of concepts, principles, and tools used to create and deliver the most value while consuming the fewest resources overall.

    This system of management seeks to eliminate waste. Waste is unnecessary movement and duplication in a process. A way to identify waste is by looking at the complete flow of a process by using value stream mapping. Lack of efficiency in a process hides this waste. Currently, there may be duplication of processes across our city departments.

    A goal of “Lean” is to thoughtfully improve the efficiency of processes in ways that will have the least impact on jobs and yet result in significant cost savings. Another feature of “Lean” business environment is transparency; allowing people to know what’s going on. Such as: Where will the city be in three years financially? Where will the city be in terms of our quality of life in three years? “Lean” will help us begin to answer these important questions.

  9. Mayor Rossing is still leaning toward a survey of citizens in order to discern how they (citizens) would prioritize budget cuts… staff or service cuts.

    The problem is that as expressed, a “good” (read scientific) survey would cost 16-23K; how do you justify that expenditure when you’re already talking budget cuts? just adds that amount to what needs to be saved, right?

    But a second concern of the Mayor’s is that she doesn’t get “deep” enough into the community…i.e., the much discussed question here of: How do you get the people who seldom or never participate in the public process to do so?

    The Mayor’s concern, as expressed at last Tuesday’s meeting was to get beyond the comments of the ‘usual suspects’… I think that’s a great idea… HOW do you involve people in a public process which affects them if they just don’t care to comment?
    Maybe ‘they’ should shut off everyones water for a day! Just Kidding!

    Any practical ideas that don’t cost 16-23K?

  10. I think a well-designed online poll that everyone (City, KYMN, Nfld News, Northfield.org, local blogs, Facebook and Twitter users, etc) helps to promote could generate substantive input on budget cut ideas/feedback.

    The feedback from the poll could then be used to go deeper via a two-week online panel discussion forum, and several one-hour real-time online chats.

    All this would be relatively cheap to deploy. I know just the guy who could do it, too. 😉

    And for those who aren’t online, Councilors could hold a series of Ward meetings.

    1. A non-random poll is not a survey, and promoting/soliciting responses through “KYMN, Nfld News, Northfield.org, local blogs, Facebook and Twitter users, etc” is not very different from, or necessarily more accurate than, simply asking the usual suspects to tell them what they think.

      Speaking for myself: I think the City Councilors have some very difficult choices to make.

  11. Isn’t the “truth” somewhere between Patrick and Griff?

    I agree with Patrick that doing what Griff suggests may not be non-random enough.

    However, my quickie internal cost-benefit analysis questions whether spending $10-15k to POSSIBLY reach people who are not inclined to be involved or want to comment is really worth that much, especially in such a challenging fiscal climate.

  12. Tracy/Patrick, I don’t think the Council has a fixed set of budget cut items/ideas that it wants to know the degree of public support for. (Badly worded, I know.) If it did, a scientific survey might make sense. I think the school district has done this type of survey in the past prior to a levy vote, eg “If you were voting today, would you vote yes or no on…” etc. The results would let them know how to focus their campaign.

    What’s needed now, IMHO, is some genuine engagement with the public, a real desire to listen and learn. Apart from whatever ideas are generated, this could generate some goodwill towards City Hall, a “we’re all in this together” spirit that’s really needed.

    Unfortunately, a budget cut discussion with the public comes at the same time as the public safety facilities PR campaign. It muddies the waters. But that’s water over the dam now.

    1. Griff: you are correct when you say what is needed is”genuine engagement with the public”… but the Mayor’s concern is that her engagement with the public doesn’t “go deep enough”… you’re the media guru: Lay out a specific plan.
      Of course the citizen task force for the safety center laid out a specific plan and that didn’t fly with the Council, so I’m not sure what the MO is here; needs some more direct speech.
      I for one am tired of the sloganeering that has been going on for some months. If some councilors are going to keep repeating canned sound bite phrases, then no one is going to be listening.

      Councilor Pownell said at the last meeting that she had spoken that day with two residents that didn’t know anything about a new safety center!
      So how do you start informing those that don’t even know the issue is there? And if someone knows nothing about it, how much information do you have to give them to get to the ‘informed vote’ level?
      And will those that are uninvolved to that extent even vote at a referendum in November?

      By the way, it’s a tad difficult to get into the “we’re all in this together” spirit when at the Public Hearing the Architectural firm for the Safety Center is asked to give a full presentation, but there is nary a word solicited from our well-prepared Library advocates…

  13. Yesterday’s Nfld News: Northfield council mulls creating finance ‘think tank’

    At its meeting on Tuesday, the council discussed creating a financial “think tank” that could offer advice and assist the council with what will likely be significant cuts in services and staff. This year, Northfield lost more than $1 million in state aid, roughly one-third of the $2.9 million that was originally promised by the state. City officials predict that Northfield’s state aid money may evaporate entirely within several years.

    Most council members agree that the “think tank” should be made up of experts or professionals in the business field and representatives from local organizations, but several councilors disagree on how the proposed group should function.

  14. Sat. Nfld News editorial: Don’t bypass transparency in budget cutting process

    Congrats to Rice County and the city of Northfield for saving taxpayers money. Next time, can you let the public weigh in on it first before you make a decision?

    The city of Northfield did something similar when it cut its Spanish language interpreter position. The first time that specific cut was discussed in public was when the council voted on it.

    While it is true that bringing such proposals to a work session delays a final decision, we cannot let the zest for saving money become more important than transparency of process.

  15. Nfld News: Northfield councilor suggests pay cut

    During a budget discussion on June 18, council member Rhonda Pownell proposed reducing the city council stipend, or trimming the council’s current membership from seven representatives to four at-large members and a mayor.

    Either measure, the council member argues, would save the city thousands of dollars. Councilors are paid an annual stipend of $7,200, while the mayor receives $9,600.

    It may not be much compared to the extensive service reductions and staff furloughs the city may implement, but Pownell believes it sends an important symbolic message to the community.

  16. I appreciate the thought behind Rhonda Pownell’s idea of reducing council stipends, but if any symbolic cutting is done, it should be done first among the mid to upper ranks of city staff, rather than reducing the pittance paid to the council for many, many hours of work each month.

    In addition, reducing the almost insulting amount paid to the council and mayor doesn’t necessary send the message “we feel your pain and will suffer alongside you”; it says “there are untouchable sacred cows in town, and we don’t value the public service our elected officials provide”.

    1. I partially agree, but to get a 20% budget cut, a good amount is going to have to come from the library, public safety, and public works. Administration has a large overall percentage of the budget, but to garner that 20% cut, every aspect of the city budget will need to take an impact.

    2. I also think it’s a fantasy to believe that this would be interpreted as “we feel your pain and will suffer alongside you” and will change the negative attitudes of a vocal minority towards their elected officials. If the cuts are part of an overall budget strategy, so be it. But I doubt there will be a political up-side to their action.

    3. Phil and John: I agree. Rhonda Pownell proposal might be a nice symbolic gesture, but the Councilors really need to be looking at the overall budget, and concentrating on making tough decisions about big ticket items.

      Nickel-and-diming away at the budget will not get us where we need to go – especially while the Council is also proposing major new capital outlays.

    4. Tracy: thanks for stating the obvious that everyone is saying, but most are afraid to say ‘publicly’.
      NF has to look at big salary and department cuts, as well as departmental consolidations to get to the amount that must be cut.

      1. Kiffi,
        You said:

        NF has to look at big salary and department cuts, as well as departmental consolidations to get to the amount that must be cut.

        I agree! It’s not a solution that I’d like for the city to undertake, but there really is no choice.

        Our elected leaders – especially our Mayor and freshman councilors – really need to step up to the plate and make some very tough choices that will fix our budget not just for one year, but for the forseeable future.

        There are no easy cuts, and every cut is practically guaranteed to make a lot of people unhappy. But then, we elected them to lead, so now’s the time to do it.

  17. I think the city can really use an outside finance board to help with the budget. We are in, and have been in for a couple of years, a new economic environment. The sooner the city figures this out the better off we will be. Craft a budget that includes no LGA. Craft a budget that supports the core basic functions of the city. We should be tossing aside all the things that we have grown into over the past 20-30 years that are not directd core city functions. We grew ‘fat’ gradually but we are going to have to lose weight very quickly if we are going to survive.

    1. Ray,
      I second your call for crafting a budget plan that includes no local government assistance.

      The current state budget was only balanced with dramatic assistance from the federal government, and additional national stimulus money will not be coming – as it won’t get past a Republican Senate filibuster. With no national dollars filling the state coffers, the legislature will almost inevitably pass on a good chunk of the state deficit to the cities by ending LGA or slashing it to a token amount.

      Ray, your proposal of an outside finance board is possibly a good one, as well. I assume it would be purely advisory, offering alternatives to the Council to consider? Who would typically be chosen for such a committee? Some professional experience / licensure in bean-counting would seem to me to be in order.

    2. Ray… there has been talk of an outside, i.e. citizen, advisory financial board for some time…. I think Mayor Lansing first suggested this when he wanted the state auditor to look at some of the city’s financials… and now it has come back for kind of the third ‘go-round’.

      Kathleen Mc Bride (city Finance Director) has said she is fine with that if their work is very narrowly focussed, and I DO understand her thinking, in that a lot of raised questions MAY do nothing but increase her work load, which is substantial.

      However, the make up of this proposed board would not be totally without influences, as it has been suggested that names be submitted to the Mayor for her selection. And indeed that is her prerogative on the established, designated boards and commissions.
      But I wonder if that is the best m.o. in this case; I would rather see a totally ‘arms-length’ citizen advisory board for this purpose.

      Look at the steering committee for the Safety Center: am I wrong in thinking there are fewer citizens than staff, elected, and hired connections to the city? I have no problem with all the ‘city-connected’ persons being there to listen,or supply information, but how is that makeup providing an independent perspective?

      If a financial advisory board was to be established, just for the purpose of coming up with ideas relevant to this budget crisis, then I think it must feel ‘free” to suggest any and all solutions… after all we have not heard an abundance of large enough ideas yet, from our city staff.

  18. Strib June 28 editorial: Awash in red ink, cities seek advice

    Those same mayors and their League of Cities counterparts are now enlisting citizens to help devise more lasting remedies. The league has launched a public information campaign that will include community conversations about the future of city services.

    Rather, city officials seem to be advising Minnesotans that their next fiscal moves will have to be on a different scale, qualitatively and quantitatively, from those the last decade brought. Elected officials see that they now must think about options once thought unthinkable, and they want local voters to see that too.

    1. and a response in the comments, written in Spanish , but not from a member of the Latino community, tells the letter writers that they are poor people and the city values a street (Division) more than them…

      I hope Mayor Rossing , who voted in the affirmative for a package of cuts (including the translator) will meet with the group from Viking Terrace, and take Ms. Evans-diCarpio with her for that discussion; AND THEN will ask the council to reconsider at least that part of that vote.
      Actually any councilor who voted in the affirmative may ask to “reconsider” a legislative vote, but it would be most meaningful if the Mayor would do so.

      1. Kiffi…I am surprised that you would fall for such a blatant emotional appeal such as ‘the city values a street (Division) more than them…”

        Also, consider the logic in the original letter that equates the elimination of the position with ‘Northfield not caring about Latinos’, and ‘not wanting them here at all’. Suggesting that the elimination of one program sends the message that Northfield a racist community is very disturbing. These kind of arguments are a slap in the face to the council, and in fact all citizens, for their support of the many public and private programs that serve the Latino community.

      2. It’s not correct Spanish, so I may be mistaken, but that paragraph actually said “We are poor, and the poor don’t matter. Only the Division Street business owners that make Northfield look pretty are important to the Major and City Council”.

      3. Wm.. I did not “fall” for anything; I am incensed at the kind of trouble making that the commenter engaged in, as opposed to joining the letter writer in asking for the reinstatement of the interpreter’s job… that would have been far more effective that pitting people against each other… It’s all about personal competition and character assassination over there, rather than making a reasoned case for the principle or issue being discussed.

      4. Thank you, Mr. Poyner, for the accurate translation; haven’t had any Spanish classes for 60 years so I got the gist of it, but not the specifics.

  19. Patrick, the financial board that I talked about would indeed be advisory only. That is as it should be since we have elected officals in place. But the good thing about an honest advisory committee is they can focus on the pure financials of the city, without a bunch of other baggage to deal with. Finance is a huge thing and if we are in good financial shape we can do lots of great plans, but if we are in terrible financial condition we can’t do much of anything.

    I mention a budget without LGA as that is where we need to head. LGA was a poor idea when it was put in place over 30 years ago and it has done nothing but get worse and worse during that time. And the federal dollars you note rescuing the state are only Monopoly money….it is all borrowed from our great-great grandchildren. I am in the court that believes not a penny should have been sent to the states since the federal government is operating on fumes right now. We all have to deal with the system we created, not pass off a terrible financial mess to the unborn.

    Kiffi is right in that a committee would need fair, reasonable representation, not a committee with a pre-cooked agenda as often happens. I envision accountants, business managers, economists, and others that deal with the world of dollars and cents….and sense. I might think about our current city financial manager on the committee as long as she was there for answering questions only, not to guide the process.

  20. Ray –

    I agree with you, the advisory group would need to be truly independent. The representatives should be free to advocate for the values and priorities of the citizens. I would hope that their ideas reflect some of the innovative thinking that has emerged in the comments to my “Let’s Wiki a Budget” post: https://locallygrownnorthfield.org/post/18248/

    There’s another important issue besides the independence of the representatives. It’s the scope of their inquiry. Some of our leaders have suggested limiting the citizen advisory group in its analysis and recommendations. In response to our new financial reality, everything should be on the table and there should be openness to all ideas.

  21. I’d like to go a little farther than my friend Ross, and say specifically that as I previously said (21.2) Ms. McBride, the city Finance Director, has told the Council that such a group, in her opinion, would have to be very narrowly focussed. I understand completely her not wanting to get caught up in a far ranging discussion when she has a lot of specific duties on the desk…

    But the important thing here is that a citizen financial group must be totally independent of city “influence” if it is to be truly effective… no staff except as observers,no elected officials except as observers, no publicists except as observers…

    As a matter of fact , I do NOT think they should be appointed by the Mayor from a list of submitted names. I think a leader should emerge, and pick a small beginning team , announce the formation of a group. let others apply, and certainly have their meetings be open to the general public, for listening and the possibility of submitting suggestions.

    After all, there is NO obligation on the City’s part to adopt any of the group’s suggestions, so..
    True independence means NO connection with the ‘City’, even Mayor’s appointment.

  22. Ray, you wrote:

    “I envision accountants, business managers, economists, and others that deal with the world of dollars and cents… .and sense.”

    I agree. It would be important that such a committee would not just be made up of interested individuals with no actual expertise in financial/budget matters. We already have an elected set of interested individuals who we chose to make these decisions for us. Any advisory committee should bring something more to the mix, and that would be financial expertise.

  23. OK, I get it. The committee would be made up of local crony capitalists, and the voters wouldn’t be able to do anything about it because they aren’t elected. Brilliant!

    1. I think you’re confused , Mr. Oney… the committee would only be advisory, and the Council, the elected officials, could choose to look at their advice or not.
      The committee would have no implementation power of their own.

      1. Then why fool around with a panel. Individual citizens, and ad hoc groups of citizens, are always free to throw their two cents in at council meetings. Why give one such group a privileged status with the council?

  24. Scott,
    That is, of course, the danger of such a thing. Were I constituting such a hypothetical panel, I would try to put the emphasis on accountants / bean counters rather than interested local businesspersons. Similarly, I wouldn’t charge them with creating a fixed budget, I’d charge them with identifying a whole host of possible cuts, each with a dollar figure (of total and/or annual savings) attached, and totaling possible cuts far in excess of what is needed. The actual decisions on cuts would then be left entirely to our elected leaders.

    As long as it’s purely advisory, then our elected representatives are responsible for actually making any decisions.

  25. …another way of looking at that danger would be the possibility that this budget cutting process would be turned over to a panel, and the Council would then rubber stamp whatever their advisors suggested, saying, “we set up a process, and the process led to this decision.” Sort of like with the city’s decision to change legal representation.

  26. Patrick: Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of. Because they had declared the panel a bunch of “experts,” the council would be free to pretend the members somehow knew what they were talking about. Which in a sense, they would: At least they’d know what projects would benefit themselves the most.

  27. Scott,
    The one and only benefit I can see from an advisory panel would be in having a fresh set of trained (accountant-type) eyes pick apart the budget piece by piece, breaking it down into individual cuttable components, and perhaps uncovering some new ideas for what to cut – sort of like when Jon Denison figured out how much tax money was being diverted away from the city, county, and school budgets, and into the TIF for use on downtown beautification projects.

    Of course, that would only be useful if the city brought in bean-counters who didn’t have a vested interest in the decision as to which beans get picked.

    1. Patrick, just as an aside – I don’t think it’s quite fair or accurate to talk about tax money being “diverted” for “downtown beautification” when the Streetscape Framework Plan was adopted five years ago, and funding mechanisms determined around that same time by the City Council.

      I’m in favor of reviewing the city budget with fresh eyes, given the significant changes brought about by the housing market collapse and the distintegration of LGA from the state. Given the enormity of the changes, it makes sense to re-prioritize.

      However, I don’t think it does much good to take potshots at fiscal commitments and plans that were made in a different economic climate.

    2. Wait a minute, wait a minute, Patrick,you wrote: ” … sort of like when Jon Denison figured out how much tax money was being diverted away from the city, county, and school budgets and into the TIF for use on downtown beautification projects. ”

      Mr. Denison did bring his personal concern to the fore,but it is no revelation that that is how each and every one of the TIF districts diverts money. Each TIF agreement will have different rules as to how those diverted taxes are spent, but you make it sound like there was some big scandal exposed, when in fact the downtown TIF district has existed since the late 80’s when the Riverwalk was built.

      I would imagine that part of the reason the captured increments were reinvested in the downtown was to insure a reinvestment in the FUTURE of the downtown.

      Another reason may be that each property owners along the river gave upwards of a thousand square feet of land off the riversides of their property to the city as their investment in the downtown.

      Mr. Dahl, from whom we bought our property at 306 Division, gave 1500 square feet off the western edge of his property to the city, in return for a dollar and a BIG assessment for improvements!

      Do you really think that over the course of thirty years, after giving approx 10-15% of your land, paying a 20 year assessment, and paying the increased property taxes every year since 1986 , a property is not somewhat entitled to general improvements of the entire downtown streetscape which then benefits all of the 60 some properties in the core downtown?

      In my opinion, Mr. Denison has taken to being critical of, and voting against downtown issues, not because of any claimed fiscal conservativeness, but because he opposes specific persons and other councilors who support the downtown.
      If you check his voting record, and the recent personal criticisms of other councilors during meetings, I think you, even you who are such a supporter of Mr. Denison, might come to that conclusion… but probably not, come to think of it.

      Each of the people, building owners, who have paid their assessments, paid their increased taxes, and given significant portions of their downtown property, are not even equally reimbursed for those TIF dollars spent on downtown projects EXCEPT by the collective theory that “a rising tide raises all boats” …
      AND … as Councilor Pokorney pointed out at the last meeting, all those streetscape improvements contribute to the ever rising property tax bills each year which by those property owners payment brings even more revenue to the city!

      So… the whole picture, as regards the downtown district, is one of leveraging,which, I’m sure you know, is one of the ways to get the biggest bank for the operable buck.

      I would propose that Mr. Denison’s argument in actual fiscal terms, does not make sense either by short or long term calculations. Neither the Financial Director, K. McBride, nor Joel Walinski could support anything but keeping the district intact for its remaining two years after the first possible decertification date of 2011, and their positions taken in the Council packet were well explained, in terms of ACTUAL dollars and cents…. and sense.

      P.S. the 2011 TIF$$ that are dedicated to the Transit Hub are a contractual obligation (with State offices) for matching funds , and cannot be dismissed by choice now that the State $$ have been committed.

    3. Tracy,

      We have to take “potshots” at commitments made years ago to see if those decisions were wise. The Streetscape idea was a good idea. However, experience has made it clear that our goverment (any government?) just doesn’t have the wherewithal to do a good job with unattached revenues.

  28. Don’t get me wrong: I am generally in favor of downtown improvements. I like downtown, and I, too, like to see it made a little better and better every day. I like the idea of a bigger, better downtown library, and I like the idea of better facilities for police and fire.

    Everything in this town’s budget is someone’s sacred cow. So why not just give up on the idea of cutting our budget, and just raise property taxes by $2,000,000.00 for next year, and again as needed each year as the aid to cities is eliminated?

    1. Sure is starting to look like things are drifting that way. I’m OK with it, but I’m sure lots of folks aren’t.

      1. Yes Phil, that’s what I’m beginning to expect, too.

        I could afford my proportionate share of such an increase, but I really don’t think that it would be good for the longterm viability of our community.

  29. Patrick/Phil…

    One problem with being ‘ok with it’ is that while the property tax increases, property values continue to decrease.

    I wonder how much city spending has the effect of increasing or sustaining residential property value. If downtown is vibrant and charming, then has my house value increased (or better held its value) in any relation to city spending that benefits downtown? Does improving the library, or building a safety center increase residential property value? These questions probably can not be answered with any specificity, but my guess is that this spending would positively benefit house values. The current problem is that housing values trend lower regardless of city spending or investment.

    At what point will the citizenry say: Enough! We have had it with property taxes going up, and property values going down. Personally, I think we are very near that point… even here in the heart of progressive Minnesota. We do not need a property tax increase to balance the budget. We need to cut spending. And then the city can take on those projects that will improve our quality of life, the municipal infrastructure, and maybe even our property values.

    1. William,
      I don’t know when the citizenry will say, “enough!” Some have already. I do believe that I have read complaints from downtown building owners here on LGN about how high their taxes already are – well before this current crisis.

      I’d guess the next argument may be about who will have to pay the tax increase? If we raise taxes on commercial property, we may drive away businesses that are the economic engine of our town. On the other hand, if we raise taxes on homes, we may drive more citizens into foreclosure, and eventually drive all but the richest citizens from town.

      Maybe we can just raise taxes on Faribault? 🙂

      1. Patrick; the second paragraph of your comment #35.1 indicates that you MAY not understand the way property taxes work, i.e. you can’t specifically/intentionally raise taxes on one segment of the community… although the differing rates for different classes of properties (set by state) do some of that, but the more important factor is that this year the county assessor DE-valued the residences, but did NOT devalue the commercial properties, so that when the council raised the rate of NF’s tax levy, there was little or no impact on residential (because you’re paying a higher rate, but on a lesser total value), but a large impact on the commercial (paying a higher rate on the same value).

      2. Kiffi, thank you for expanding upon that. I’ve never owned a commercial property (and I’m pretty sure I never will), so I’ve never spent much time looking into the details of how they are taxed.

    2. William, I’m sure Most are painfully aware of how property values are going down. I bought my house in early 2008, so I went underwater about 5 minutes after I moved in! But I think you may have missed my point, or my point got buried in everything else being discussed. I believe in fiscal discipline too; nobody gets what we are not willing to pay for. But, as Patrick said, if every budget item is going to be someone’s sacred cow, then the only way to be fiscally responsible is to increase revenue, and we all know what that means. So, the citizenry doesn’t get to say “enough” unless the citizenry is willing to put the cows on the table too. That includes everything. I just read that Faribault is going to drop the standard for firefighters on shift from 3 down to 2. That’s a huge risk, but things are tight so they feel they have to roll the dice. And that’s where I think we are at…budget cuts won’t just cut fat; they are going to cut muscle and bone as well.

      Regarding Patrick’s question of who would pay for a tax increase, that’s something I like to see an independent study look into. What would the consequences really be? Better to make a decision based on impartial review than on anecdotal stories.

      1. Sacred cows,… cutting fat, muscle, and bone…

        Good thing I’m not a vegetarian, or I might be put off my brunch.

      2. Patrick, it’s not surprising to me that this looks like an argument over food. This is like talking about losing weight. At the bare bones level the only way to really lose weight is to take in fewer calories and burn off more calories. Simple. Any diet that doesn’t adhere to that principle is a fad. Same deal with budgets. To balance a budget you either decrease spending or increase revenue or combine the two, and any budget that doesn’t adhere to that principle is accounting mumbo-jumbo. But you talk about decreased spending around here and everyone has a reason why X, Y, or Z should be spared. You talk about increased revenue and, at least in this town, somebody (or lots of somebodies) assume you are talking commercial property taxes. That’s why the independent study makes sense. What are the consequences…for real, not just what “somebody” thinks they will be.

  30. My recollection of the drift of the council’s conversations about getting outside advice on the city’s financial future was correct: they’re looking at the long term, not the 2011 budget.

    Check out the packet for the council’s work session on Tuesday: http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/p/Packet172.pdf, item #2

    There, you’ll see how the staff has framed the discussion about a financial advisory group. There is no provision at work sessions for public comments, of course, but there should be time between that meeting and when they make their final decision for people to give the council their opinion.

    By the way, Griff – the final item on that work session agenda is “communication policy.”

    1. Thanks for the heads-up on the ‘communication policy’ agenda item, Jane.
      http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/p/Packet172.pdf

      I see several references to “electronic community forum” and one reference to “selected social media options” on p. 19, the Communications Event Matrix.

      Having spoken with all but one of the council members in the past two weeks about those, I’ll be interested to see what develops.

  31. Paul will always vote for a tax increase for Peter and the residential property owner will do the same to the commercial property owner (and the elected reps know this)…until stores start closing…because the store owner cannot pay the rent increase because Paul will not pay the price increase and the building goes into foreclosure because Peter can neither pay the tax increase nor carry an empty store.

    1. Geez Louise, Norman! …Now that model of fiscal responsibility, the NFNews’s own “fairandbalanced”, will say those downtown building owners/tax payers/people are whining again…
      So far this week it’s me, you, Tracy, Ross … who else?

      In case anybody cares, I’m NOT for raising 2 MIL $$ by raising property taxes; I’m for cutting the ‘fat’ to the bare bones … but I don’t think they’ve even looked at the fat yet, at least not publicly.

  32. "A lack of transparency continues to plague the Northfield City Council" says Nfld News Jaci Smith in a tweet about Suzi Rook’s column re: the layoff of Marj Evans-de-Carpio :

    On Tuesday, City Councilor Rhonda Pownell shocked four of her fellow councilors with news that she had held a meeting with some community members to discuss the possibility of getting a woman who for years served, in part, as a translator for the city’s Latino community, back working for the community.

    Pownell should have kept her fellow councilors in the loop, a visibly irritated Councilor Betsey Buckheit said at Tuesday’s meeting. I, too, would love to know why Pownell didn’t bother to mention her meeting to her council colleagues and encourage her to respond to that question publicly here. Zweifel wasn’t pleased with Pownell either, noting that Pownell had previously asked her to table the discussions on reconsidering Evans de Carpio’s hire.
     

  33. You can view this part of Tuesday’s meeting here. It’s evident from the discussion that it was not Councillor Pownell’s intent to do things surreptitiously or behind the backs of the other councillors; it was an unfortunate playing out of her attempt to listen to her constituents without inadvertently violating open meeting law by having too many councillors present.

    I’m sure that communication about this could have been handled differently, but I’ll bet Rhonda will be careful about that going forward.

  34. Nfld News: Plan would halve city departments

    A plan to more than halve the number of city departments could save Northfield up to $150,000 a year.

    City Administrator Joel Walinski’s proposal, presented to the City Council at its Tuesday work session, hinges on reducing the number of city departments from 11 to five. Under the plan, two to three staff members would retire early. That may include Community Development Director Brian O’Connell, Walinski said, adding that layoffs could also be on tap.

  35. Nfld News editorial: More details needed on reorganization

    The city’s police and fire departments would be consolidated under a single public safety director, and the city’s library and parks and recreation departments would serve under a single community services director. Engineering, street and park maintenance and water and wastewater services would work under a public works director, while the Economic Development Authority, Housing Redevelopment Authority and planning would report to a community development director. Finance, human resources, information management and internal services would be under the control of an administrative services director.

    But there are some important unanswered questions. Administrator Walinski suggests that the new department head positions will be filled from existing staff, but doesn’t say who or whether they have the proper training/experience. There is also the question of who will oversee this process, since Walinski suggested it with barely a month left to his tenure. And what happens if the new incoming administrator has another idea? Do we start over then?

    1. Griff –

      I applaud the Northfield News for asking some questions about City Staff’s plan.

      Frankly, when I read the story my first thought “we’ve got a $2 million budget problem and their big idea only totals $150,000”?

    2. Ross, additionally to your comment of “their big idea only totals $150,000” , at the council meeting, a discussion ensued between Mr. Walinski and Councilor Pokorney in which they said there were need to be some small “cheap” physical changes made in City hall to accommodate the combined offices…. AND … then that led Walinski and Pokorney to laughing banter exchanges about the planned $1.3 million renovation of City Hall that just exactly 2 years ago was planned for a fall referendum.

      The ‘joke’ , as they perceived it, was how that project had gotten totally out of hand, i.e.,scope creep … and how this one shouldn’t do the same…
      Needless to say, I didn’t see the humor in their very flippant exchange.

  36. Coming from the soon-to-be-departed City Administrator – and bearing in mind the size of the budget deficit and the simple fact that he will not be here to implement it – this proposal seems rather ineffectual. It is also a bit odd that an exiting senior staff member propose a reorganization of the staff structure; are we being given a silk purse or a sow’s ear?

    I‘ve heard repeatedly that “everything is on the table” but nothing from the 40,000 foot level that this “everything” must include staff salaries, benefits and numbers. The Community Development Director costs us 150k per year, the Economic Development Director 100k – with little or no community or economic development for more than two years now and even less in the foreseeable future. This is not about their particular qualities or fitness for their jobs but the economy.

    Throughout our nation (in fact, the world) over the last two years, non-profits and for-profits have had to face similar fiscal realities, have done so, and have made painful but necessary decisions regarding bloat, productivity, payroll – in doing so many have emerged with leaner, more efficient, more responsive organizations.

    Likewise with City Halls the length and breadth of the country – they have downsized, decimated, and even totally eliminated city staff and have discovered that the sky does not fall in. This is the challenge facing our community and one which, for reasons beyond my ken, we have thus far refused to confront.

    Here’s another one…four City Administrators in 10 years. Bearing in mind all the fuss and bother recruiting these top dogs, what is it about us, our community, our methods or madnesses that keeps coming up with the same Shakespearian result? Is there something rotten in this state of Northfield (for it cannot be the pay)?

    1. Norman –

      In recent Administrator hires, haste has made waste. In the one exception, when we had the only true interim Administrator, Bill Bassett, we threw away the luxury of time to find a good candidate by succumbing to a panic hire when our first choice took another job.

      Personally, I think that a few of our leaders, who are suggesting that we hurry up and find a replacement in 30 to 60 days, are making a huge mistake…one that will once again level a huge cost upon Northfield’s citizens.

      Let’s find an interim administrator, perhaps even for 18 or 24 months, but someone who is going to go away at the end of the contract. If we can find someone who has the courage and independence to make some significant changes down at City Hall, so much the better.

      We could also consider an “out-of-the-same-old-box” interim. When Al Roder split town, I suggested John Stull, two-time Mayor of Northfield and retired Vice President of Operations at Malt-O-Meal. I figured he could fix a sharp eye on and apply a sharp pencil to operations down at City Hall.

      Instead, the Council backed Al Roder’s hand-picked replacement. Sure, he’s a nice guy who everybody likes, but, upon further consideration, was it really a good decision?

  37. Norman and Ross… let me be so bold as to add an observation about this ‘opportunity’…
    I find it so bizarre that mr. Walinski would come up with this staff consolidation plan as a ‘going away gift’ , that I think must it must be a plan offered , possibly, by the Mayor… just a guess!

    But what I think is the real opportunity here is the notion that is finally beginning to take hold, and that is that there must be cuts in the senior staff salaries, the over 100K base salary group, in order to be reasonable.

    It won’t do to start cutting services to citizens when there is little work for some senior staff because of the general economy.

    So what is needed is a ‘hatchet man’ for the interim. Sounds awful, but that’s what they are called. Someone who is good at analyzing for efficiencies, does not know personally the staff whom he is charged with cutting, does the job, and then leaves taking the ill will with him/her, voila! the permanent hire comes in with a fresh start, and can field any complaints with the cuts being a fait a’compli when he/she arrived.

    Sounds easy; I’ll bet it’s not…

    1. Sorry Griff, but that article concludes with the inside-the-same-old-box type of ideas. I suppose that’s what you get when you ask people inside-the-municipal-box for solutions. Hopefully, there will be citizens, including some in Northfield, who will rethink local government and propose some meaningful changes.

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