by CHRIS ROGERS
The city of Winona’s 2022 budget was already tight. It eliminated six vacant staff positions, from a street maintenance worker to an accountant, and cut local spending on street repair roughly in half. Even that relatively austere budget was partially propped up by $590,000 in proposed deficit spending. A 5-2 vote by the City Council in September put the kibosh on that deficit spending and tasked city staff with finding $590,000 in additional budget cuts to make up the difference. Next week will be the moment of truth for the council: What else can the city cut?
“The finance director and I have been meeting with department heads to look at every area of the budget,” Acting City Manager Chad Ubl said. He explained he will present a package of proposed cuts to the City Council on Nov. 15. Ubl said he wouldn’t release his proposal until that presentation and that he would ask the City Council to vote to tentatively approve the cuts at the same meeting.
Asked if he had any ideas of what could be done to balance the budget, Mayor Scott Sherman responded, “I do, but I’m not going to discuss it because nothing has been decided yet.”
Cutting an additional $590,000 from an already tight budget is a tall order. It may involve painful decisions, such as additional staffing reductions, which Ubl confirmed are on the table. “It’s never easy; it’s not going to be easy for the council, nor for staff,” Sherman said.
“It’s challenging,” Ubl acknowledged. “… I think when you’re making those final adjustments to any budget in any year, those are the ones that are difficult to make, primarily because it comes down to projects that may be in the [capital improvement program] or projects that we know may be upcoming that we think may be a benefit to the community.”
The city could balance the budget by cutting projects, such as further reducing funding for road repair or postponing expenditures like buying body cams for the police department, resurfacing long-idle tennis courts at Sobieski Park, or replacing aging fleet vehicles. However, cutting one-time expenditures such as construction or repair projects, as opposed to ongoing expenditures, such as staffing and programming, would leave the city with a similar deficit to make up in 2023. “We also have to be forward thinking and not just looking at 2022,” Ubl said. “When the finance director and I sit down to review these, we also look at what I would call a snapshot discussion of 2023 and 2024 … Some of the decisions we’ll be making are related to longer-term financial situations.”
Staffing reductions could have downsides besides the obvious ones, Ubl continued. He raised the issue of how cuts might affect the staff left behind. “I think the city, much like other businesses are experiencing, we need to be mindful of our workforce. And we need to be mindful of appropriate staffing, and where is it possible to have reductions, and where is it of utmost concern that, if we were to propose reductions, that we would be able to bring those positions back in future years?” he said.
As for what, specifically, the city could cut, Ubl declined to comment, saying, “You’re going to have to wait until the 15th.” He added that he and the finance director are still working on the proposal.
Ubl said his proposal would be one slate of cuts adding up to $590,000, not a menu of options for the council to consider. If the City Council disagrees with his recommendations, the timeline gives the council a short window to make any changes before the budget must be finalized in December.
Young and City Council member Michelle Alexander spearheaded the push to eliminate deficit spending from the budget, pointing out that it is unsustainable and arguing that it is irresponsible for the city to continue it. Sherman and council members George Borzyskowski and Aaron Repinski agreed, while council members Eileen Moeller and Pam Eyden dissented.
The issue was the one main point of public disagreement between the council majority and former city manager Steve Sarvi before the council told him he could resign in a closed-door meeting last month. Sarvi had initially urged the council to adopt a more gradual approach to eliminating reserve spending.
In an interview, Young said that while he hopes funding for road repair isn’t reduced any further, it was important to get the city off deficit spending. He described reserve spending as “masking” the true cost of city expenditures. “It’s like musical chairs. At some point the music was going to stop on this. You can’t do that forever,” he said. “In fact, I felt we were getting perilously close to the music stopping … So we put a stop to the spending of the reserve dollars to avoid an even larger future problem.” He added, “I would consider this a minor course correction, and it is a course correction, to be sure. I think the council has been clear, we want to go in a somewhat different direction.”