Mayor Dietz offers plan to balance budget

by Joni Astrup
Associate editor
Elk River Mayor John Dietz has laid out a plan to balance the city’s proposed 2012 budget without raising the tax rate.
Calling it “one man’s opinion,” Dietz outlined the details at a budget work session Tuesday, Sept. 6. It met with mixed reaction from council members.
The City Council is expected to set the city’s 2012 maximum proposed property tax levy on Monday, but the budget  and levy won’t be finalized until December. A meeting to take public input on the budget is set for Dec. 5.
Here is Dietz’s plan.
•Add back in a 1 percent across-the-board budget cut, which amounts to $125,873.
•Cut the Energy City program and reduce the hours of one or both of the city’s two environmental staff members. Keep the Project Conserve program, estimated to cost $5,000 in 2012, and have Elk River Municipal Utilities manage it. Savings: $60,000.
•Put off hiring a patrol officer to fill a vacancy for a savings of $64,000. The opening is a result of the shuffle that has taken place since former Police Chief Jeff Beahen left. Dietz said the city has operated without this position for most of 2011. He said later that he’s just proposing that the city go without filling the position for a while longer, but is open to filling the position if the city can cut $65,000 somewhere else.
•Give staff a 2 percent pay increase at a cost of $150,000. While there are many requests for more employees, Dietz said the majority of taxpayers are asking for reductions in government, not increases. He’d rather reward the current employees than hire more staff.
•Lay off a building official to save $82,000. Dietz proposes having the city’s code enforcement official work 50 percent of the time in code enforcement and 50 percent as a building inspector. The net result would be a reduction of four hours a day in the building department. He said from 2005 to 2007 permit income exceeded building department wages and benefits by $1.9 million. From 2008 through June 30, 2011, building department wages and benefits have exceeded permit income by $31,000.
•Assume that the city’s net tax capacity drops by 5 percent, not 6 percent as originally estimated, resulting in $100,000 more in revenue. Final figures are not yet available. If the net tax capacity does drop by 6 percent, Dietz proposes to reduce all budgets by one-half of 1 percent to save $65,000 and take an additional $35,000 from a contribution made by Elk River Municipal Utilities to the city.
•Take $115,000 from the landfill fund—a fee paid by the Elk River Landfill to the city. “I don’t have a problem using some of this money to help the general fund when it needs it,” Dietz said. “Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.”
Council Member Paul Motin said he agrees with some but not all of Dietz’s proposal.
He said there’s a certain amount of service the city has to provide.
Council Member Nick Zerwas believes there should be a cost-of-living increase for staff of perhaps 1.5 or 2 percent.
Zerwas said he agrees with a lot of Dietz’s proposal, especially regarding Energy City and the staff reduction in the building inspection area. He said he’d like to see Elk River Municipal Utilities pick up portions of Project Conserve, which helps people conserve electricity, heating fuels, water and gas and reduce garbage.
Council Member Jerry Gumphrey said: “I’m going to disagree with all that.”
Gumphrey said the city has been running at a bare minimum for many, many years and may need to look at increasing its staff. He also disagrees with not filling the police officer position and won’t support any cuts to the police and fire departments.
Council Member Matt Westgaard took issue with tapping into the landfill fund to balance the budget, calling it a “dangerous game.”
“That money will come to an end and all we’re doing is prolonging the inevitable,” Westgaard said. “If we’re facing a problem, then let’s just deal with it instead of pushing it to a future council.”
Meanwhile, Interim City Administrator Bob Thistle said when multiple cuts are inflicted on an organization, it gets to the point where it begins to seriously deteriorate across the board.
Thistle said he’s not taking sides on the budget, but suggested that at some point the council should talk about what its core services are. Then focus on those and do them right “so you’re not in a situation where your entire organization is stressed,” he said.