City leaders ask, 'What can we stop doing?'by Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
The state's new budget forecast shows Minnesota with a $4.57 billion deficit. The pain is rippling across the state to places like Otter Tail County in west central Minnesota. In Fergus Falls, the largest city in Otter Tail County, leaders are trying to cut the budget without hurting essential services. But that raises a question. Just what does a city have to do?
Fergus Falls, Minn. — The best way to see where Fergus Falls spends its tax money is to hit the streets.
The city spends nearly half its budget on streets and parks. About one-third of city spending is for public safety, including a mostly volunteer fire department and a 29-person police department.
During an afternoon patrol shift, the wind still carries a winter bite as officer Nathan Lien drives the streets. It's a quiet afternoon, with a couple of fender benders and some traffic stops. Lien's job is already a little more complicated because of budget cuts.
The clerk who typed officer's reports is retiring, and to save money, that position won't be filled.
That means officers have to type their own reports within each 12-hour shift, and try to avoid overtime.
"Basically we've been told we have to implement a little time management," explained Lien. "It's a tough thing to eliminate, that's for sure. Say the 3:00 p.m. guy gets a DWI at 2:30 a.m. Hard to avoid overtime with that because you have to go through the Intoxilyzer and the jail."
The change means officers will spend more time typing and a bit less time patrolling the streets.
Cutting the budget without affecting service is a balancing act, according to Police Chief Tim Brennan. His goal is to avoid cutting officers.
"We've cut basically everything that we can now, and we've gotten to where we need to be," said Brennan. "If it becomes more severe then the only thing we have left is personnel. That's all we have left so that's where we'd have to go."
Brennan was the police chief in Mounds View, a Twin Cities suburb, before coming to Fergus Falls about four years ago. He says in the metro area, officers always have backup close by.
But in Fergus Falls, the nearest backup might be a state trooper or a sheriff's deputy who's an hour away. That's why he's determined to keep three officers on the street at all times.
Police are very visible in a small town where many people know the officers by name. People also notice if the snow isn't plowed on time and the potholes aren't patched.
When I interrupt the card game at the Fergus Falls Senior Center, it doesn't take long for the subject to turn to potholes. "Well, I know we got too many square-wheeled cars," chuckled Bob Tennison.
"Like West Alcott. It's like a washboard," said Betty Bakke.
"That's one thing we're going to have to put up with," added Jean Zahler.
"But if they don't fix them they get worse, and it's going to cost more in the long run," replied Bakke.
If those potholes don't get fixed, or the snow doesn't get plowed as soon as residents are accustomed to, Anne Martens is the one who hears the complaints. She's the public works director in Fergus Falls, and she's responsible for everything from potholes to garbage to parks.
Martens says this is a chance to find more efficient ways of running the city. But she's clearly frustrated after wrestling with the budget the past five months as the state's economic outlook worsened.
"It's not good right now. It's a difficult situation," said Martens. "We're slimming down big and there's going to be some changes."
Some of the noticeable changes might include fixing fewer potholes, less overtime for snow plowing and fewer flowers in city parks.
Martens says tougher budget items include aging equipment that needs to be replaced. She worries that otherwise, the budget might be swamped by repair bills.
Still, Martens hopes to move ahead with a project to replace the old streetlights with long- lasting, energy-efficient LED lights. The savings will pay for the project in three years.
The city will need to increasingly focus on essential services. But everybody has a different idea about what's essential.
Fergus Falls resident Tim Litt considers public safety the most essential service. He says the cities first priority should be safe streets. But what about the library, or the senior citizens center? How about summer recreation programs?
As he thinks about it, he admits those are essential too.
"If we're not using those things and calling them essential services, we're not going to get people to our community. Our tax base isn't going to grow and our taxes are going to keep going up," said Litt. "That's why I think we need to find ways to make the government more efficient, so those amenities are still here to draw the people in."
Ultimately, deciding what's essential will be a job for the elected officials. But Fergus Falls City Administrator Mark Sievert needs to do a lot of the number -crunching before those decisions can be made.
"I just really wish for us it was more simple. Hey, we fix the streets and we plow the streets. We arrest criminals. We put out fires. We give you water and sewer. We pick up the trash. That's it. If you want the other stuff, figure it out. I wish it was that simple. But it's not," said Sievert.
All 143 full-time city employees were recently required to attend meetings about the budget.
Ten city jobs have disappeared in the past five years through retirements and attrition, and employees appeared resigned to more belt tightening as Sievert explained the situation.
"I'm laying my cards on the table. We've got union negotiations coming up in the fall. And when I come in my offer is going to be 0 percent," Sievert told employees.
He's hopeful layoffs can be avoided. A handful of retirements should leave more empty positions in the city.
But he says the need for government services doesn't go away in tough economic times. It's not like a business, where if widgets aren't selling and revenue drops, employees are laid off until sales pick up again.
"You're going to get cut 25 percent of your aid, lay off 25 percent of your workforce. Well then, what 25 percent of what we're doing do you want me to stop doing?" asked Sievert. "I can't stop plowing 25 percent of the streets. I can't stop mowing 25 percent of the parks. Well, I suppose I could if that's acceptable to the public, but it just doesn't quite equate that way. We still have to provide all those services."
Sievert thinks the city will become more efficient. But he says there's little wiggle room left in the budget.
So the question is, what should be essential?
Everyone can agree on safe streets and clean water. But there's less agreement on things like flowers in the parks, lifeguards at the beach or a fully funded library.
Sievert says residents haven't really weighed in yet. That will likely change if residents start to notice the services they've taken for granted disappearing.
- Morning Edition, 03/04/2009, 6:50 a.m.