Let’s Wiki a City Budget

Recently a few of our public officials acknowledged what many astute observers had been discussing for months.  The City of Northfield needs to address a $2 million budget deficit.

After experiencing property tax increases of over 300 percent since 2000, commercial property owners have been encouraging City leaders to balance the budget without another property tax increase or the creation of additional fees.  Most business leaders, indeed many private citizens, have had to balance their own budgets in the face of declining income, and they understand that cutting costs often means reducing services.

In at least three discussions with local business leaders, Mayor Rossing has suggested that if the City needs to cut costs, they could look at cutting Police, Fire, and Snowplowing.  The question that came to my mind, “Are these the services citizens would most want to cut?”.

Based on conversations I’ve had with a variety of people, I believe the answer is, “No.”

Several groups in town have been asking for greater citizen participation in City budget balancing since at least last November, when many of their members were already predicting the coming crisis.  However, some of our City leaders have resisted citizen involvement.

Very recently, the Council discussed the possible creation of some kind of citizen advisory group to analyze City spending and to recommend changes.  But now it’s July and the fiscal year is half over.

Northfield has valued and encouraged citizen participation in the big issues of the day since John North set up his Debating Society shortly after founding the town.  One hundred and fifty or so years later, we’ve probably got more Web 2.0 tools per capita in this town than any other community in Minnesota.

In the award-winning and best-selling 2006 book “Wikinomics”, authors Tapscott and Williams suggested that we open source government.  As the many of the most progressive and successful private sector organizations have realized, we’ll make better decisions if we tap the insights of a broader segment of the population.

So let’s “wiki” a City budget.

A few of us have met informally over lunch in recent weeks to share gathered City budget information.  One product of our group’s efforts is posted within this piece.  We consider it to be merely a starting point for further discussion.

It represents the City of Northfield’s General Fund Budget for 2010.  I would note one thing in particular, however.  This financial summary includes Economic Development and Housing Development, both of which are funded by separate levies on the taxpayers.  Our group thought it was a more transparent view of the City government’s spending to include all of it on one page.

I encourage you to review the attachment and consider how your $11 million are spent.  If you were trying to cut $2 million, would it be library hours, park maintenance, or the  Spanish interpreter?  Would you instead look at cutting back on police, fire, and snow-plowing?  Or would you look at other areas of the budget?

Griff has discussed several techie tools that might be appropriate for a  citizens’ “vote” on funding municipal services.  Mayor Rossing has publicly pondered a survey of citizen priorities.  Frankly, I’m about ready to set up 7 labeled cans in the coffeehouses and taverns around town and hand out 9 dollars worth of wooden quarters to interested citizens.

But citizen input gathering is the next step.  Right now, I would encourage you to review and contemplate where your money is being spent.  Think about your priorities moving forward, in a new economic reality, and be ready to share them with all of the people of Northfield.


  1. William Siemers said:

    This is a good idea for citizen input. But the devil is in the details. Without more ‘subcategory’ detail it is hard to have an opinion. For example: Engineering. How much is expected to be in-house and how much subcontracted? How much, if any, of the ‘Streets’ budget is actually Engineering? How much of the Police budget is community outreach?

    From a broad perspective, it seems like common sense to first look at those departments that small to medium sized private companies often outsource: Security; Human Resources; Engineering; IT. I’m not advocating outsourcing the police department, for example, but there may be portions of what they do that can be handled by others for less. But it’s hard to say without detail.

    July 1, 2010
  2. Tracy Davis said:

    William, these are excellent questions, and I’d love to see the answers. I wonder if the Council has asked similar questions or gotten specifics on this level. I haven’t been following it closely enough – anyone know?

    July 1, 2010
  3. Ross Currier said:

    William, yes and no.

    Yes, for instance, if you, personally, might suggest outsourcing a portion of the $440,565 Engineering line-item, and you would need more detail to determine how much might make sense.

    No, if you are considering the budget in the level of detail that has been shared with the citizens to date, you might not know that Public Safety, Public Works, and Recreation aren’t the only areas of the budget for potential cuts.

    Personally, I think the budget discussion should start with the values and priorities of the citizens and that is why I posted the attached summary.

    I also think that you have already made a substantial contribution to this citizen “wiki-ing” process by offering the suggestion that perhaps some of the Engineering could be out-sourced to the private sector.

    July 1, 2010
  4. Kiffi Summa said:

    Ross: Can you get Councilor Jim Pokorney to submit his budget numbers which may not lay out specific cuts… but DO look at the whole picture of the IMPACTS, i.e., new facilities, bonding costs, LGA cuts etc.

    July 1, 2010
  5. Ross Currier said:

    Kiffi –

    I would agree with you that Councilor Pokorney has contributed some good thinking to this matter, essentially suggesting that everything that costs the taxpayers money is related, at least from a financial impact perspective. However, I really want to hear from the citizens right now.

    My understanding of our political system makes me believe that the Council will have the last word on this topic. Jim will get his chance; I hope that there will be some ideas posted on LoGroNo that may be of interest to him.

    July 1, 2010
  6. Patrick Enders said:

    As William says: the devil is in the details.

    The ‘macro’ numbers you posted above are too broad to be useful except for matters of perspective. I can, for example, see that our deficit is bigger than the entire combined library/park/recreation budget, so even if we entirely stopped all those services, let the library freeze this winter, and let the parks go to seed – we’d still be in a deficit.

    However, absolute elimination of any of those budget items is not possible. If people are to draw any useful conclusions, we need to be working with more granular information – and that’s both on the expense side as well as the revenue side. Just as an example, there is no information on potential city tax revenue which is currently being diverted into TIF’s.

    There are also these notes:

    (1) Funded by Separate Levy; General Fund budget total and FTEs without related levies =10,519,815$ 78.55FTE
    (2) Planning and Building Inspections part of Community Development; total Department Budget $511,070.

    That note (1) is huge! It’s almost as big as the rest of the budget in total, and it should also come under scrutiny. As I understand it, the city has some latitude in determining those Separate Levies, and if those levies were to be reduced, it could offset levies intended for general expenses. (I’m not necessarily advocating such, I just think that in a budget crisis this big, one has to consider all possibilities.)

    Again… it all depends on the details.

    July 1, 2010
  7. Patrick Enders said:

    I agree with Kiffi. Jim is a smart guy. His notes on the matter would be most helpful.

    July 1, 2010
  8. Phil Poyner said:

    Patrick, I read that note to mean that the portion of the $11,052,061 overall budget NOT paid for by separate levies was $10,519,815. Of course, I could be wrong.

    July 1, 2010
  9. Ross Currier said:

    Phil –
    You read it correctly and are accurate in your interpretation.

    July 1, 2010
  10. Kiffi Summa said:

    Even with attending meetings, and doing observing for the LWV, it is hard to have the necessary info to get at really comprehensive ideas for budget cuts. I assume councilors can get the info they need , but Pokorney has said he has been asking for weeks, and it has not been provided.

    Here’s an example: The engineering dept… often we hear that engineering has to contract out for specific accreditations, (bridge construction is one example, I’ve heard of)and others that I can’t think of at the moment.
    Since the engineering is all contracted out to the firms actually doing the work, one might suppose that the dept at city hall might consist of technicians and administrative personnel, rather than a Dept. Head, i.e. City Engineer.
    But it is hard for a citizen to know if that is realistic, and where would the OBJECTIVE opinion of that come from?

    Here’s another example: When Mayo comes to the City to discuss building their new oncology treatment clinic, who do they speak with first? The City Administrator, or the Community Development Director?
    Could their initial contact be the City Administrator, who would then send them to the Comm. Dev. Dept, which had no Dept. Head, but rather the actual people who implement each stage of the approval process for their project… planner, engineering consultant, Planning Commission, Council for approval.

    Then you would need to model a cost study, as to what would be the efficiencies for that Mayo process, for example, if it did not have the oversight of the Engineering and Community Development Dept Heads.

    If one is going to talk about cutting large salaries, like Dept. Heads, or about consolidating Depts, it needs to be an informed discussion… so the BEST OPTION would be for the Council to get to this point of discussion, and do it with the pertinent info in hand.

    My bottom line is that offering suggestions as to large scale cuts, is best defined as
    indication of what citizens value, in their understanding of services…
    So, I guess on just that gut reaction level, I would like to see Dept Heads cut, but the ‘worker bees’ in depts kept intact.

    ****An obvious exception to my feelings would be the retention of the Library Director , who has done an exceptional job of managing her department, and motivating her employees to providing more services with less money, as she has not been receiving budget increases for the Library. ****

    July 1, 2010
  11. Patrick Enders said:

    Phil and Ross,
    That makes more sense. Glad to hear it – and again, it points to the need for more granular information. That leaves a $500,000+ budget for housing and economic development that should be carefully scrutinized along with the rest, since the city should leave no stone unturned.

    July 1, 2010
  12. Ray Cox said:

    Kiffi….right on. You are getting the the crux of the issue now. City, state and federal governments have created such layers that they are close to unworkable….except for the few (and greatly growing) numbers of people who work for government. Your example of where does Mayo turn to is a perfect example of this. We are not some huge, autonomous entity. Just like my company cannot exist well without me going out and meeting with clients, the city cannot function well without trimming its layers and going directly to those that need it.

    As Ross points out, the first reaction from established city staff/officials so often is “do you want to plow the streets less? Have fewer police? Etc.” The resounding answer should be a huge NO. We want thoughtful reductions in areas that we can reduce without compromising the duties of the city/county/state governments.

    I’ve noted in past postings that I served on the Northfield school board for 16 years. During that time we had to make several budget reductions. When we did it we charged the Superintendent with bringing to us twice the amounts of reductions needed. We also set up an advisory group to assist in the process. (There was also a permanent finance advisory group ) We were then able to discuss, evaluate and hopefully make informed budget reductions. The city is clearly needing such a plan.

    As I have also noted several times in earlier postings, I don’t want to cut a police officer for fire fighter and preserve an assistant planner, Development director or other such position.

    And as Kifi points out in talking about engineering issues, if we have to hire out every function of the department, then the department clearly can get by with a much lower grade personnel than it currently has. If you hire a licensed city engineer, then you should be using the license.

    July 1, 2010
  13. William Siemers said:


    I agree with your priorities: “I don’t want to cut a police officer for fire fighter and preserve an assistant planner, Development director or other such position.” However there are undoubtedly cuts that can be made in the police and fire departments.

    I also agree with your idea that the council should demand each department bring in a realistic budget that includes deep cuts…in this case, let’s say about 20%.

    City Administrators and department heads do not generally get bigger jobs and/or compensation because they have reduced what they oversee. They may well be fully committed to the good work they do, but they also have a self interest in seeing it grow and not seeing their budget reduced. The council has to get past the staff’s doomsday predictions and demand to see realistic cuts that meet the budget. And that will mean fewer employees, less hours and a reduction in services across the board.

    Perhaps citizens here are willing to fund a portion of the shortfall. Personally, I would support a tax increase, but only if significant cuts have been made first.

    Finally…a few questions. Why build a safety center now? Does an economic entity facing bankruptcy build a new facility? Or should it get its house in order before considering new expenditures? Can citizens be expected to take this fiscal crisis seriously when the council is proposing new spending on a new facility? What is the bigger problem, the budget crisis or the need for a new facility that we clearly can get along without…at least for a few more years?

    July 2, 2010
  14. Kiffi Summa said:

    At yesterday AM’s meeting of the steering committee for the Safety Center project, one of the citizen members raised, for at least the third time, concerns about the wiseness of the whole project at this time, when most people feel there is no money for anything and the ‘city’ itself has to make large budget cuts.

    There was more ‘gravitas’ in most of the other members’ silence this time, and even some actual listening, but in the end the M.O. was: well, we’ll just have to work harder at selling it.

    It is very disappointing that when a well voiced concern is raised multiple times by a long time resident/businessman on the committee, that the response is never even to consider or discuss delaying the project ’til the economy is better and money more freely spent.

    Of course some construction costs will be less in a time when businesses are looking for work to fill their schedules, but there is also a time when you put an expensive new part in your car just to put off hopefully buying a new car for a year or two. But much of the talk centers around savings now, no matter what the total project impacts are.

    This is really a ‘tough one’, because I think there is no question a new fire house is needed… but the evaluative questions are not coming to the fore, only the declarative statements.

    July 2, 2010
  15. Ross Currier said:

    William and Patrick, I’m glad that you’ve spent a little time on the big picture on before delving into the employee pension plans. Ray and William, personally, I’m pleased that you two wouldn’t start the cuts with Police, Fire and Streets. Patrick you’re right, cutting the $1.8 million we spend on the Library, Sports, and Parks wouldn’t quite reach the $2 million target.

    However Patrick, you suggest that the elimination of those items, the total Recreation category, is not possible. I was recently at a meeting where a respected leader of a local business organization suggested that perhaps we could no longer afford parks and that this land be returned to nature. Another suggested that we sell the hockey rink, swimming pool, and soccer fields to the appropriate sport clubs for $1 each and free ourselves of the costs. Finally, after watching the Library bear a disproportionate share of the cuts over the last two years, a citizen approached me about the possibility of transferring the Carnegie Library to a yet-to-be formed foundation.

    Frankly, at best, I wonder how those actions would work, and, at worst, I think we’d be lucky if we’d realize the budget benefits by 2013. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for these steps. However, as you also noted, one has to consider all possibilities.

    I’m with Ray and William, and I’m going to publicly suggest to my fellow citizens that we don’t start the cuts with Police, Fire, and Streets. There may be some potential savings in Public Safety and Public Works, but let’s not start there.

    I guess I’m also going to share my opinion that we should try to spare the Library from further cuts. It’s no longer open on Sundays or Saturday afternoons and further cuts in hours have been suggested; if it’s only open Monday through Friday from 9 to 5, half the citizens won’t be able to experience its pleasant interior.

    That leaves about $6.7 million of expenditures that we could at least consider for cost cutting.

    At this point in the “wiki” process, I think it’s important for citizens to share, with each other, what government services they most value. We’ve heard comments from Ray, William and me. I hope there are more comments, from others, including some more unexpected suggestions, like letting the parks return to nature.

    July 3, 2010
  16. Bruce Wiskus said:


    I too am concerned with this rush to spend millions for a new safety center. I have not studied the issue as close as many others and I may be overlooking something, however I don’t get it.

    Is there an imperative reason to build this right now? Is the safety and well being of the city being put in harms way by this center? If the answer is no, then I think we should wait until the city is in a better position to fund it.

    If someone can explain it to me I am open to hearing it.

    July 4, 2010
  17. Patrick Enders said:

    “It’s high time we get into TIFs”

    Suzy Rook has a column with a bit more information on Jon Denison’s proposal to consider decertifying TIFs as a way of improving our budget situation. There’s also a bit more from Ms. McBride on the subject.

    July 5, 2010
  18. Kiffi Summa said:

    For anyone interested in this issue of decertifying the DT TIF District, you would be far more informed by reading agenda item 12 in this weeks ( 7/6) council packet.

    There you will find some accurate information rather than what is primarily expressed in Ms. Rook’s OPINION column, which is based on mr. Denison’s opinions that have been previously expressed at council meetings.

    A quote of mr. Denison’s from the article: “I can’t in good conscience support more of these (downtown) projects when we’re going to have to cut police and reduce library hours,” he said, adding that TIF dollars don’t pay for essential services.

    I believe mr. Denison does not understand the structure of the TIF, understandable as they are very confusing and I don’t pretend to fully understand the TIF legislation. He IMPLIES lack of funding for police/library because of the TIIF project $$, although stating the TIF $$$ can’t fund those parts of the budget.

    SO… the argument made above is nonsensical ; there is NO connection between the $$$ received from the DT TIF district and monies spent in the rest of the budget.
    The TIIF $$$ may ONLY, by law, be spent on DT infrastructure projects. So one might ask why is mr. Denison making such an obfuscating pairing of issues?

    Regardless of what you think of these projects, they are outside of other budget considerations as they are proposed to make use of the ‘isolated’ $$$, and linking them to cutting other essential services is misleading the public as to that information.

    Decertifying the DT TIF district now would ONLY bring an incremental portion of the $$$ back to the city, after redistribution of those funds by the County.
    That TIF district brings in close to 600K a year; why would you wish to limit those future funds available for projects that could not be funded in any other way, especially during a budget stressed time?

    You don’t have to believe my opinion; go on line, read agenda item 12 in this week’s council packet, see that the City Administrator and Ms. McBride do NOT recommend this decertification….
    and then make up your own mind.

    July 5, 2010
  19. Patrick Enders said:

    The comment you criticize in _not_ nonsensical. TIF is a means of diverting tax money away from general purposes, and setting it aside for some particular purpose.

    If the money was not diverted from going into general funds, then some of that money would flow into general funds, and that money could be used for general purposes.

    Of course, that leaves the question of: how much is the TIF drawing off from general funds, and how much has it already irrevocably committed to spending? I look forward to reviewing the Council packet when I have a chance to find it and read it – as Ms. McBride has stated that she would include more information on the status of the downtown TIF there.

    But even if it turns out that that money has already been spent, that does _not_ make it nonsensical to investigate the possibility.

    July 5, 2010
  20. Kiffi Summa said:

    Patrick: when the district brings in the amount of $$ it does, that can all go to projects that would be difficult, if not impossible to fund otherwise, especially now.
    If the district were decertified early those dedicated funds would be lost as to their entirety; they would be returned to the county, and only the percentage of any tax dollar that come to NF, out of any prop tax dollar would be returned to NF… I’m not sure what that actual percentage is, but it is less than 30%, and so you are wasting total dollars for a very short term NON-fix.

    I do believe that is “non-sensical’; you obviously do not.

    In my mind it is somewhat like buying a 50 pound bag of kitty chow when the cat is being put down tomorrow. (Sorry for the horrid example, but it came to mind at the moment). It’s waste… and the amount of $$ returned is in no way equatable to the amount of money lost.

    I know that you regularly disagree with me disagreeing with mr. Denison; IMO, he IS taking a non-sensical position on this one, a position that is an example not of fiscal responsibility, but of adversity to persons who might be considered ‘downtowners’…. his issues with dollars spent in the DT, whether dedicated dollars or not, is sustained by his votes.
    That is his privilege; I just think he is wrong… you do not… and there we have horse races!

    I’ll be interested to hear what your opinion is after reading the packet information…

    July 5, 2010
  21. Patrick Enders said:

    Director McBride’s summary on the TIF is on pages 100-109, here:

    Decertifying the TIF would return about $570,000 to the city, schools, and county annually in 2012 and 2013. If we don’t decertify, that money can be spent on part of a transit hub, and on other projects recommended by the Streetscape Task Force. Or maybe some of it will be left over on Jan 1 2014, and be returned to the city, schools, and county then.

    There are no easy cuts, but this definitely should be kept on the table when the city has to make these very hard budget decisions. As Ray and William agreed: “I don’t want to cut a police officer for fire fighter and preserve an assistant planner, Development director or other such position.”

    Given a choice between a police officer and a teacher, vs. a transit hub, I’d probably come down on the side of keeping that teacher and that police officer, and putting off the transit hub ’til more prosperous times.

    July 5, 2010
  22. Ray Cox said:

    I hate to get into the whole TIF issue, but I disagree with one part of Patrick’s premis when he states that “decertifying the TIF would return about $570,000 to the city, schools and county annually in 2012 and 2013.” The basic concept is probably correct, but in reality the taxpayers wouldn’t see a dime. The entities would simply spend the $570,000 and the real estate taxes on those businesses would not go down a dime. In fact, I would guess the RE taxes on the properties would actually increase. Therein lies the problem with TIF’s in general….you create tax ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ rather than play on a level playing field.

    But I’d rather see this thread stay focused on the city operating budget. William, I’m glad you agree with me that it doesn’t make sense to cut public safety while keeping a planner, housing director, economic development director, community development director, etc. etc. I think the city needs to focus on the real core functions of the city, which in my mind are: police and fire (public safety), transportation, and public utilities (sewer and water). These things are the reasons cities were created in the first place and they should continue to guide all actions. We get into real problems, at a city, state or national level, when we start straying too far from the core functions of governments.

    And William and others have asked a perfectly legitimate questions, namely, why build a safety center right now? No one from the city has a good answer to that other than “construction costs and the cost of money are so cheap we need to take advantage of it.” That is a terrible reason to saddle your taxpayers with a huge debt. But, I will admit that it goes along with the reasoning why some this past legislative session advocated for a massive capital projects bonding bill in Minnesota. The pitch was “we need to create these jobs, money is cheap and construction costs are low”. Other than creating jobs, Northfield is following the script to a T. Others in Washington say we need to keep pumping (Monopoly) money into projects in every state….same logic. What we need is government that creates an ENVIRONMENT

    July 6, 2010
  23. Ray Cox said:

    sorry….wrong key.

    creates an ENVIRONMENT where private business can flourish, create jobs, and create opportunities for all to succeed on their own, without government subsidies or handouts. We need a climate in Washington what provides guidance, stability, and assurances so that people will invest capital in ideas, factories, and businesses. We do not have that. We seem uncapable of doing that right now. Until we creat stability we will continue to see economic problems.

    July 6, 2010
  24. Leota Goodney said:

    I agree with all those that says it is difficult to say anything of substance without more detail. I went to the city website to look at the current budget, but was unable to get it to load (which may be entirely due to my lack of technical skill) I was also looking at the various department duties.

    As far as values – I think the library is the best bang for the buck the city has, and after the streets, sewer and water, the one which my family most frequently uses. Of course we also want the fire and police available and are willing to pay for that insurance.

    Am I correct in understanding that the water and sewer services pretty well pay for themselves?

    After that it gets a little hazy. I certainly enjoy the parks we have and think they are an asset to the city, but I’m not willing to give up fire protection to pay for mowing. Are the police and fire departments efficiently run? Theoretically, I see that economic development and planning are good long term investments, but can we forgo them in the short term without doing irreparable harm? Overall, are there administrative tasks that can be done more efficiently or at lower cost? Are we paying highly skilled people for doing low skilled tasks and, if so, is there any efficient way to change that?

    What about the possibility of taking a straw poll? Each participant has to allocate total dollars available (the $9M number) among various outcomes which the city provides – access to police service, access to fire service, snowplowing, enforcement of the building code, access to maintained parkland, access to library services, attracting new business/ supporting business growth, support of the democratic process, etc. The format could make available the current cost of each category. It’s a variation on what Ross has done already.

    July 7, 2010
  25. Ross Currier said:

    Perfect, Leota! Yes, something along the lines of a straw poll, with each participant allocating $9M (in $250K pieces?) among the various outcomes provided by the public sector.

    By the way, I greatly appreciate your thoughtful comments. I think the questions you ask are on the minds of many citizens.

    July 7, 2010
  26. Does anyone ever consider part time city staff, or anyone to volunteer for services like mowing? How about bringing in retired city administrators, retired police chiefs or police persons for ideas, mentoring, etc.

    July 7, 2010
  27. Phil Poyner said:

    “And cause I was a gazillionaire, and I liked doin it so much, I cut that grass for free.” – Forrest Gump 🙂

    July 7, 2010
  28. Ray Cox said:

    Cities used to use a lot of ‘Green Thumb’ workers which I believe were paid a modest sum. They were mainly retired folks that were working in areas they had worked as their vocation. I’m not aware of that program running any longer. I suspect labor agreements may have brought it to an end.

    I too like the idea of a budget builder to see where people will allocate funds. I believe Leota is correct in that water and sewer systems should mainly be self sustaining by way of fees. Other areas of current city services also are at least partially supported by fees such as swimming pool, ice arena, etc.

    For me the bottom line is I don’t want to see local taxes continue to increase if I don’t believe every single city function has been examined, re-examined, and re-re-examined to see that it is a core function, necessary, and being delivered in the most cost effective manner.

    July 7, 2010
  29. Griff Wigley said:

    Posted to Nfld News this aft: Council rejects TIF district decertification

    That was enough for Denison, who advocated for tax relief during the meeting and argued that the TIF district, created in 1986, had “outlived its usefulness.”

    But Mayor Mary Rossing, who voted against early decertification, said after the meeting that the funds generated by the TIF district were of strategic, long-term value to the community. The TIF money can be spent anywhere within the Hwy. 19 and Hwy. 3 commercial corridors, and could possibly be used to pay for part of the development of the city’s proposed police and fire station facilities, McBride and Rossing said. Those projects could cost as much as $12.4 million, according to city officials.

    Not only that, Rossing said, but the public money in the fund can be used to leverage additional funding from private investors for improvements that are beneficial to the community.

    July 7, 2010
  30. I feel that we sometimes fall into old ways of doing things because they are shrouded in the fabric of a created image that has never been questioned. Labor agreements of the past shouldn’t be allowed to control our future if it means utilizing talent for needed services. I’m not for taking anyone’s job, but there’s always solutions for everyone involved if people keep an open mind and heart.

    July 7, 2010
  31. Griff Wigley said:

    MPR Groundlevel blog: Facing a squeeze, Willmar asks residents for a top 10 list

    Willmar’s budget writers want the public to get specific: which services do you need? And which are more of a luxury in this difficult economic climate?

    A new survey on the city’s website encourages residents to choose Willmer’s top 10 budget priorities from a list of 32. Ice arena programming, airport maintenance, Willmar Fests, storm water management are on the list, as are some more general government activities such as land-use and zoning . There’s also a category for "other". Survey respondents also may say how to pay for services: higher fees, taxes, or what can be cut.

    Willmer councilman and finance committee chair Denis Anderson hopes 20 to 25 percent of city residents respond. The responses won’t be binding, but will help guide the council as it makes its budget this summer.


    In order to provide input and guidance to the Mayor and City Council in preparing the 2011 budget, the citizens of Willmar are asked to complete the following short survey before July 21.

    July 8, 2010
  32. Ross Currier said:

    Hey Griff –

    This is way cool. Could you put this kind of poll up on LoGroNo? You could start with the 27 categories in the .pdf embedded above. It’s not perfect, but it would be a great way to keep the citizen-driven discussion going.

    July 9, 2010
  33. Ross Currier said:

    I’ve been trying to follow the comments of a number of citizens on the City’s budget balancing process. It’s been a little more challenging due to the fact that there are three posts which touch on the topic: “Where’s the public process on Budget Cuts?” (64 comments), “Budget Cuts: an opportunity for Local Government to Deliver Services WITH Citizens. Social Media can Help.” (25 comments), and “Let’s Wiki a City Budget.” (33 comments).

    I tried to identify the main thread in each post and follow it through the resulting comments. “Where’s the Public Process on Budget Cuts?” seemed to emphasize that although there had been some modest budget cuts in a few areas, some Citizens and some Councilors were suggesting the cuts were made without the context of the overall financial challenge or the values of the community. “Budget Cuts/ Deliver Services/Social Media can Help” seemed to suggest that including citizen values in the budget cutting, building citizen support for the Safety Center(s) Referendum, and improving communication between officials, staff and citizens could all be supported by the use of Social Media. “Let’s Wiki a City Budget” was a simple call for citizens to express their values and priorities for specific services currently being supplied by the City of Northfield.

    Although there are a number of interrelated comments that have been made on all three posts, I will try to focus on “Let’s Wiki a City Budget”. I may have pulled some points from the comments on other posts but my call is for the citizens’ values and priorities, instead of the creation of a Mayor’s Task Force or the firing up of new Social Media tools…not that I oppose either of these ideas.

    With sincere appreciation, I thank the commenters who have offered their personal priorities. I will also note that Police, Fire and Roads seem to have been highly ranked, at least by those speaking up. I will add that several commenters have suggested that there might be a bigger, philosophical discussion that should be conducted on what services it is essential that the public sector provide and what services might be reduced in times of financial crises and I appreciate this point too.

    Although I don’t disagree that when it’s time to make the actual cuts to specific departments, one must have the exact details, I don’t think you need to know the precise figures of the employee pension plans to offer your personal values or individual priorities. In addition, although basic arithmetic skills would be helpful in conducting multiple iterations of various budget cut scenarios to achieve a balanced final proposal, I don’t think advanced math skills are essential in this exercise.

    When it’s time to total up the citizen recommendations that are adopted by the Council, you’ll notice on the embedded budget that we spend $450,000 on Administration, $400,000 on Finance, and $325,000 for Information Technology; for this over a million dollars in annual expenditures, I’m sure there are people who can manipulate an Excel spreadsheet, work a calculator, or use a pencil and columnar pad. I would argue that at this point in the process, citizens should avoid getting bogged down in details and focus on their core values and priorities for services.

    After all, the way I think local democracy is supposed to work is that Citizens communicate their values and priorities to their Elected Officials and the Elected Officials take that input, along with the input of others, perhaps the feedback of professionals or other trusted advisors, complete their own analysis, reach a decision, and then direct Paid Staff to implement the decision. Double-checking the arithmetic would seem, at least to me, to be part of the implementation.

    So, let’s get back to my wooden quarters and tin cans, Leota’s straw poll, or Griff’s Willmar example. Which cows are truly sacred to you and which are just filet mignon?

    July 11, 2010
  34. kiffi summa said:

    Very good attempt to focus this ‘herd of cats’, Ross..
    It is absolutely terrible to be put in the position to say people’s jobs should be eliminated, and especially if those jobs are department heads… but it happens to everyone else at various work levels, so I guess in the really hard times, you might have to get rid of some dept heads; making all sorts of small cuts is never going to total 2 million.

    So , if there are dept heads with salaries at or over 100K, those jobs should be looked at for their absolute necessity now, i.e. can the ‘worker bees’ in such a dept keep it functioning until the money and need is back for a fulltime dept head again.
    Think of it as maintaining a holding pattern…

    July 11, 2010
  35. When top notch people are let go, it is possible that they can deliver the methods they used to run the department, or whatever is needed to keep the ship afloat, to the people who will remain. It is done throughout industry and can be part of a working for a good next job recommendation if there is opposition to the notion.

    July 12, 2010
  36. Tracy Davis said:

    Ross, I’ll take a stab at a priority list – with the caveat that I’m doing this off the cuff, reflecting my overall point of view but not analyzing on a detail level, so this won’t be a fine-grained approach. It’s mostly just to get started.

    My top priorities/sacred cows/core functions of gov’t would be:

    – Safety (police/fire)
    – Streets and infrastructure (including municipal water supply)
    – Proper maintainence of all City property/facilities/assets needed

    Necessary & mandated functions best handled in-house:

    – City Clerk/finance (comprehensive)

    Strong community values/community identity suggest that my next priority would be:

    – Public library

    As has been pointed out at several council meetings, there are certain functions and services of City government that are mandated. However, in most cases is is NOT mandated that these services and functions be provided by full-time City employees.

    Many of the services currently provided by City Hall could/should be reduced, and contracted out wherever possible, e.g. engineering, building inspections, IT, HR…

    Things that would fall off the bottom of my list in hard times (unless they are profit centers, or expenses are covered by grants etc):

    – transit
    – liquor store
    – pool

    All of the above could be privatized if there is sufficient community support.

    And, though the concepts and functions of this department are near and dear to my heart (and have been where I’ve spent the last ten years as a volunteer in one way or another), I think we could do without most of Community Development, at least in the near term. And we could make a lot of reductions in owning/maintaining at least some of the city parks.

    So there’s my $.02 worth.

    July 20, 2010
  37. kiffi summa said:

    On July 19, when the NF city council met with the Dundas City Council, this very subject came up… and is the precise reason why, in my estimation, NF and Dundas will find it difficult to share services …
    There are too many budget and operational differences in the cities structures. i.e., NF has staffed departments with highly paid dept. heads, and Dundas contracts out everything possible… very very different.

    July 21, 2010
  38. Ross Currier said:

    Hey Tracy –

    Thanks for offering your priorities. I really appreciate it.

    Although I may not necessarily agree with your every priority, I greatly admire the philosophical base which gives a solid structure to your prioritization.

    July 22, 2010
  39. kiffi summa said:

    If you look at the disbursements in the Council packets, you will see the janitorial work IS being contracted out; here’s some numbers from the July 6 disbursement list:
    6/11/10 May City Hall Cleaning – 1282.50
    6/11/10 May Cleaning Library – 1549.69
    6/11/10 May cleaning Safety Center – 897.08
    The above all paid by the General Fund., Facilities division
    Additionally, there is an item paid from the General Fund, Police division, of 1636.94 for Safety Center water cleanup also 6/11/10.
    Given the sump pump problems there, one would have to suppose that is related.
    All these cleanings were done by Service Master by Ayotte.

    It would be interesting to compare the costs of these contracted services with the former staff employee costs. I would wager that the difference is primarily in the benefits for a staff person, which position may/probably also be unionized.

    July 23, 2010
  40. norman butler said:

    Tracy; the article you quoted above made mention of the city of Maywood’s services now being provided by a neighboring city:

    “…The [parking] ticket was issued by enforcement clerks for the neighboring city of Bell, which is being paid about $50,000 a month by Maywood to perform various services…”

    The City Administrator of Bell is paid about $800,000 a year: More than President Obama apparently. Maybe providing services for surrounding cities is how Bell cannot afford such obscene salaries?


    July 29, 2010
  41. Tracy Davis said:

    Comments now re-opened on this post, due to popular demand.

    October 4, 2010
  42. kiffi summa said:

    As an additional piece of information: usually, the majority of the discussion centers on the General Fund Budget… but there are HUGE budget implications in other parts of the City’s future which must be considered in a total Big Picture, if the taxpayers don’t want to be surprised in the near future:

    1. The Business Park, its development, its infrastructure costs… all before a return on monies that MIGHT come back to the tax base. Do not let city gov’t NOT answer the related questions.

    2. The Enterprise funds which deal with Water and Wastewater have their own Capital Improvement Budgets. These separate budgets have been presented to the Council, and show both a new Water plant and a new Wastewater Treatment plant BEFORE 2020. They are needed, and will most likely be mandated by State law/new regulations. The Combined costs of these two plants is 46 MILLION $$.
    I’ll let that 46 million dollar figure sink in… before I tell you that the budget sheets show an additional amount of just under 30 million for ongoing capital improvement costs by the year 2020.
    So … in the Capital Improvement Budgets for the water/wastewater enterprise funds the City shows the need for just under 76 Million dollars by 2020.

    I’m sure all you highly educated NFers can add, IF you have the pertinent info… so put those those two infrastructure fund costs together with ANY up front costs for the BizPk … and doesn’t it make the anticipated costs for new city facilities like Safety Center and Library look like small change?

    And yet there was a large degree of concern from taxpayers, especially the stressed business community, on how to support even those anticipated additional tax dollars.

    Whadd’ya think?

    October 4, 2010
  43. Ross Currier said:

    Thanks Tracy.

    I noticed that the authors of “Wikinomics” have published a new book, “Macrowikinomics”. Apparently, they continue to push collaborative creativity beyond software, media and culture into science, education and government.

    The authors seem to believe that government is the institution most stuck in a Web 1.0 world. While market forces have forced private sector organizations to quickly adopt Web 2.0 tools and concepts, public sector organizations, protected from market forces, have been slow to change.

    In a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, author Don Tapscott that the first step governments could take toward meaningful change is to share information and release data. Citizens could then conduct their own analysis and develop their own recommendations.

    But I digress…

    I had asked that taxpayers offer their priorities for the City’s General Fund (and related levies) spending. Although Tracy offered Police & Fire, Streets & Infrastructure, and Maintenance of Facilities, Leota had spoken for the Library, Streets, Sewer & Water, and Fire & Police, and Ray and William had made positive statements about Police, Fire and Streets, many of the comments were instead calls for more details or philosophical debates.

    I’m all for philosophical debates. Personally, I think that considering the role of government, and the services which it can more efficiently and effectively provide, is an important step in prioritizing City spending. However, at some point, I think it’s crucial to move beyond the philosophical discussion and just list your priorities.

    My understanding of the Mayor’s Task Force on City Finances (or whatever it’s officially called) is that it is very focused on the details. I think they’ve got that piece fairly well covered, leaving the bigger picture for you.

    Therefore, as we move more deeply into the budgeting season, I will once again encourage people to speak up for their values and priorities. I would also encourage you to do it publicly, if not on LoGroNo or through another media entity, then at a Council meeting or at some organization’s forum. I think it’s important to get others thinking and talking about how their money is spent.

    Time is slipping away. The economic picture is not quickly or dramatically improving. Some have suggested that our municipal leaders have not taken adequate steps to meet the true challenge. So, please, speak up, and soon.

    October 4, 2010
  44. kiffi summa said:

    I would be ask that each and every city dept go through their operational budget and look at each operation from a cost benefit analysis position.
    That is a lot of work; I recognize that. However, since it is often stated that 70% of the budget is salaries and benefits, the staff needs to be as lean as possible in order to make significant cuts.

    As far as priorities to maintain, obviously the top two are Public Safety and Infrastructure… but sometimes I wonder about some of the Police costs.
    I have never personally seen anything but the slowing down of a response by participating in the Pearl Street Center. I don’t like that our local Police station is not open for ‘drive-in’ emergencies. I don’t understand the REAL need for a mobile command center, although it’s cost was minimal, about 15K, as I recall. I think the Downtown, overnight and on weekends is very under-policed.

    There is a difference between having ‘modern’ upgrades, and providing policing with a ‘modern’ attitude.
    Let me be clear that I am not knocking the Police force, but sometimes all we hear is the need for more personnel and new equipment, in order to get the job done.

    As far as infrastructure… anyone who owns an old house knows that aging infrastructure is a money pit that keeps growing wider/deeper if it is not kept up. But that dept should also be as lean as possible without losing the ability to manage the projects it deals with.

    As for the library, I cannot compliment that director and staff enough. They continually provide more with less $$ by extending themselves. We may not be able to expand the library as soon as we want to, but they should have NO MORE CUTS; the cuts there have all been to service to the citizens,as well as the employee salaries by cutting their hours.

    Staff hours that could be cut in general, and put to more productive use, are the hours spent each week/month in monitoring the Boards and Commissions. Staff only needs to be there when the B/C determines that they need staff input; also there is no need for the staff minutes takers. That can be accomplished in other ways without losing the record, and those staff hours would be more productively used in other administrative support tasks.

    October 5, 2010
  45. William Siemers said:

    There is a good article on local government aid in the strib this morning.

    Also, some may want to check out http://www.aier.org for their citizen guide to local government budget ‘process and substance’…”Follow the Money”. $5.00 in a pdf or $10 (including shipping) for the hard copy.

    Kiffi… Good ideas on reducing staff oversight of boards. Regarding the library: This gets back to what citizens ‘value’ and what are considered ‘core services’. I question why the proposed street budget can be slashed while the library budget is virtually unchanged. Regarding police, fire, housing, etc: These are departments that could be administered and supervised by the county to reduce the cost of bureaucracy. Sooner or later citizens will ask, if not demand, that the cost of unnecessary layers of administration and supervision be eliminated. It’s inevitable. Just a question of how we get there.

    October 6, 2010
  46. kiffi summa said:

    Another ‘snippet’ from last night’s Council meeting: (Background info) Earlier in the summer , the Council had considered doing a community wide survey to ascertain how citizens would prioritize budget reductions, I believe mostly in service areas. The Council discussed this suggestion quite extensively then, but the idea finally went down on a 4-3 vote, with the cost (RFPs had been sent out and received back from three firms)ranging from 9.5K to just under 16K, being the presumed major reason for a negative vote prevailing.

    Last night , Councilor Denison asked for this item , a community wide survey, to be added to the agenda, saying he had reconsidered his previous vote and now felt that there was value in doing this survey. He stated that he had asked for further discussion on this several times, and ‘did not feel he had been heard’; “Wanted to do something drastic to get attention, so this is it…”

    Having asked for this to be added to the agenda at the meeting, C. Denison then said he would be glad to make a motion to postpone it to the next meeting, so that more details could be fleshed out, what questions Council would want to ask, etc.
    Councilor Pownell made that motion for him, and he seconded it; it passed on a vote of 5-2… so after the next discussion , the previous 4-3 vote against the survey may turn the other way, and ‘we’ will be paying for a community wide survey to find out the residents’ priorities.

    Put your thinking caps on, folks… you’re going to be paying for it, so you better make it worthwhile!

    October 6, 2010
  47. Ross Currier said:

    Great resource, William. Thanks for the tip.

    Another one that might be of interest is “Understanding Your Property Tax” by the Minnesota Taxpayers Association. In particular, Appendix A, “How to be More Effective in Monitoring Local Budget Preparations” (page 39), is pertinent to this particular discussion.

    Some of it might a bit too much detail for the average reader (although you, William, might appreciate it), but there’s a lot of solid background information in one source. Here’s the link: http://www.mntax.org/cpfr/documents/UYPT_2010_FINAL.pdf

    October 6, 2010
  48. Tracy Davis said:

    Citizen information and involvement is crucial; if values and recommendations don’t come from citizens, we’ve just asked the fox to make the rules for guarding the hen house.

    October 6, 2010
  49. Phil Poyner said:

    I like the way the graphic shows folks just which measures produce substantial savings and which don’t. To hear some people talk you’d think we could just drop all foreign aid and fire a bunch of federal workers and “poof!”…balanced federal budget! This graphic shows that there is no way to balance the budget without it affecting everyone in some way.

    November 14, 2010
  50. kiffi summa said:

    Ross: how about updating your simplified budget screenshot from 2010 with a comparable current one for comparison?

    November 6, 2011
  51. Ross Currier said:

    The City Council is holding two meetings on the tax levy and city budgets: Monday, November 14th, at 7 p.m., and Tuesday, December 6th, at 7 p.m., both in Council Chambers at City Hall.

    November 6, 2011
  52. Griff Wigley said:

    Nfld News: Budget meeting to answer Northfield taxpayers’ questions

    The City Council hosts the first of two public meetings on Northfield’s 2012 tax levy and its 2012-13 and 2013-14 budgets at 7 p.m. tonight. The second is planned for 7 p.m. during the Tuesday, Dec. 6 council meeting.

    This evening’s session will feature a presentation on the budget and tax levy followed by a question and answer session. Both meetings will be held at City Hall, 801 Washington St.

    The proposed 2012 budget provides for a “static” level of service, with no major increases or decreases in services, except for an increase in street repairs.

    November 14, 2011

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