by CHRIS ROGERS
The Winona City Council is planning on a 5.4-percent tax hike next year, raising its annual property tax levy by nearly $470,000. In meetings last week, council members reviewed city manager Steve Sarvi’s proposed budget, made minor cuts to shave 1.8 percent off the original 7.2-percent hike, and made plans to give themselves raises.
The proposed budget includes a few staffing additions, including a community outreach officer (COO) for the Winona Police Department (WPD). WPD officers had proposed creating a team of two COOs back in 2017, but the idea was scrapped after the department failed to win grant funding for it. Now, Sarvi and the City Council have agreed to fund the program with local tax dollars. The idea is that COOs would spend their shifts trying to build relationships with community members — and possibly getting crime tips — instead of patrolling the streets and running from call to call. (Search “WPD’s community policing proposal” at winonapost.com for more information.) Hiring an additional entry-level officer to free up officers for a COO team is expected to cost the city around $93,500 a year.
The city is also planning to hire an additional park maintenance worker in 2019, who would focus on Levee Park and downtown. Council members and city staff have been discussing for years the need to hire more staff to take care of the new amenities in Levee Park and under the interstate bridge.
The city is also planning to replace its television system at city hall, which should improve the quality of video and audio from City Council and Winona Area Public Schools Board meetings and enable the city to broadcast other video content on local public channels. Several council members said they received numerous complaints from citizens who could not hear anything from the council’s televised proceedings because the audio equipment is so bad. “This is having equipment that is appropriate and right for citizens to be able to participate in the public process,” council member Paul Schollmeier said of the upgrades. The council plans to spend $150,000 on it.
After some debate, the council finally agreed that it would contribute $100,000 from city reserve funds to help fund the Winona Lions Clubs’ accessible playground at the Lake Park bandshell. The total project is projected to cost $400,000, funded largely by private donations. Mayor Mark Peterson said the city had already committed to providing matching funds for the project. “We need to find a way to do this,” he stated. Council member Pam Eyden wanted to postpone city funding for the project. “It’s $100,000,” she said. “We’ve spent a half hour arguing over much less than that.” The council needs to follow through on its commitment, Schollmeier stated. Ultimately, the council unanimously agreed to fund the project.
These are great programs and projects, but the price tag is a little high, council member Gerry Krage said. “A seven [percent hike] followed by a seven [percent hike] — that’s kind of a hard pill to swallow for taxpayers,” he stated. The council raised the city’s tax levy by seven percent last year and 10 percent the year before that.
The city should find ways to lower this year’s increase, Krage said, and last week, he suggested one of several minor cuts that helped bring down the proposed hike: reducing the city’s $905,000 street resurfacing budget by $65,000. City staff will be so busy overseeing the $3.5-million reconstruction of Riverview Drive that they might not be able to get to the full $905,000 in resurfacing projects anyway, Krage stated. His colleagues agreed.
The council also decided to hold off on several projects until 2020, including a new alley paving program — which had been approved just last month — and plans to resurface the tennis courts at Sobieski Park and upgrade the rose garden at Lake Park. “I’m OK with that,” East End council representative George Borzyskowski stated, saying the city should be focusing on finishing the new Sobieski Park pavilion, then resurface the Sobieski courts in 2020.
The council made a few minor increases to the budget, as well. Council member Michelle Alexander successfully lobbied for contributing $4,000 in city funds to local international fellowship programs — mostly Winona’s Sister Cities partnership with Misato, Japan, and Bytow, Poland — and giving the Winona County Historical Society (WCHS) an extra $1,000. Alexander said that, currently, students and adult supporters have to spend their own money to buy gifts for Bytow and Misato on behalf of Winona. “To ask the students or Mr. [Joe] Lepley to buy gifts on behalf of the city and then give them to people and tell them they’re from us, I don’t think is appropriate,” she said. The city should pay for its own gifts, Alexander argued. Krage and council member George Borzyskowski pushed back. These gifts are from the Winona community, not city government specifically, Krage said. City leaders do support students traveling to Misato and Bytow by buying tickets in the students’ fundraising drives, Borzyskowski said. “I know I always buy,” he stated. Ultimately, the council voted 6-1 to approve the $4,000 allocation, with Krage dissenting. Finally, the City Council members laid plans to approve raises for themselves and tie their salary increases to those of city employees. Currently, the mayor makes $10,411 annually and council members earn $7,442, plus access to city health insurance. Peterson brought up the issue of City Council compensation during last week’s budget meeting. Under state law, City Council members approve their own salaries, but the council has to vote before a general election to approve wage increases that take effect the following year — when theoretically, they could be removed from office. The last time the Winona City Council approved salary increases was in 2015, when members voted to give themselves gradual raises leading up to their current pay. Under the 2015 ordinance, council members’ gradual raises were tied to the raises city unions receive. In other words, council members got the same raises as the unions. Under that system, all of the city decision-makers negotiating contracts with city unions receive raises when the unions do. Now, council members want to renew the system for another three years. “I think that’s a fair way of treating City Council members’ and a mayor’s salaries — to tie them in with the other folks at the city,” council member Al Thurley said. The council voted unanimously to approve the concept. The council will need to approve a formal ordinance at a future meeting before it is final.