by CHRIS ROGERS

 

The Winona library, police department, and parks and recreation department may have to make do with fewer staff next year, and a fledgling program to dispatch social workers in addition to police on certain calls may be canceled before it gets off the ground. 

To make up for a hole in their budget, Winona city leaders plan to eliminate the Alternative Response Team (ART) and the equivalent of three staff positions in the police, library, and parks departments. City officials said they hope to possibly reverse the cuts in the future years.

“Cuts are always difficult,” Mayor Scott Sherman told the Post. “The cuts that were proposed, I think, were the best efforts by city staff members to identify where we could make those cuts without impacts to our services or with minimal impacts to our services to the community.”

The impetus for the cuts came in September, when Sherman and Winona City Council members Michelle Alexander, George Borzyskowski, Aaron Repinski, and Steve Young voted 5-2 to eliminate $590,000 in proposed deficit spending in the former city manager’s draft 2022 budget. “We’re draining the savings account to spend each year,” Young said at the time. “ … My view is that is not sustainable. We should not be using reserve dollars to spend on daily operations, and it’s important to stop that.” The vote also capped next year’s tax levy at a 5.2 percent increase and tasked city staff with finding $590,000 in budget reductions to make up the difference.

On Monday, Acting City Manager Chad Ubl presented his proposal for balancing the budget. It mixes approximately $410,000 in budget cuts with $180,000 in increased revenue to make up for the $590,000 deficit. 

That includes $193,000 in staffing cuts, which Ubl said would eliminate one position each at the police department and library, as well as part-time positions in the park and recreation department that add up to the equivalent of a full-time position. Ubl said he could not comment at the moment on whether the police department reduction would eliminate a licensed peace officer from the force or a civilian position.

Those cuts come in addition to six vacant staff positions that were already cut from next year’s budget: a street maintenance worker, a tree crew worker, an accountant, the city’s youth and adult recreation coordinator, an economic development specialist, and a police investigator.

“It’s challenging, specifically when you’re nearing the end of a budget,” Ubl said of the decisions in an interview. “… The last cuts to any annual budget are typically the most difficult.” He added of the impact of the staffing cuts, “We’re all facing challenges in the workforce. Reducing the workforce at the city certainly is a concern.”

The proposal calls for departments citywide, excluding the Port Authority, to cut a combined $33,459 from their operating expenses — trimming back budgets for office supplies and maintenance work.

The plan would also eliminate the ART, which consists of two social worker-type positions contracted through Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center (HVMHC) totaling $185,000. Based on successful models in other cities and spearheaded by a group of Winona citizens last summer, the ART was meant to send social workers in addition to or instead of police to certain calls for assistance.

City staff placed the ART on the chopping block in part because the program has not been able to hire staff to fill both positions. Police Chief Tom Williams said that, with a tight labor market in general and mental health professionals especially being in short supply, there were only two applicants for the two openings, and only one accepted the job. Throughout the fall, the open position didn’t garner any more qualified applicants and with only one person, the program wasn’t able to function as intended, he said.

“It hasn’t taken off from the standpoint we anticipated,” Williams said. “We thought the concept was outstanding, and in terms of the [budget] adjustment, I prefer to say we are going to pause with the ART programming.” Everything is in place to start the program up again in the future when funding is available, and hopefully the labor market will improve, too, he stated.

“I am disappointed to put a pause on the ART, but after multiple discussions, it was not suitable at this time due to the shortage of qualified applicants,” Sherman said. He added, “That is something we should seriously revisit and we should not let it fall off the table too long.”

HVMHC Executive Director Erik Sievers wrote in a statement, "While that is certainly disappointing due the various factors that contributed to the pause [of the ART program], I want the community to know that Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center and the city of Winona will continue to work closely together to best meet the needs of the community." He cited the organization's work to train WPD officers on responding to mental health crises and its role in Southeast Minnesota Crisis Response, providing on-call mental health professionals available at 844-274-7472.

On the revenue side, the final piece of Ubl’s proposal would take into account $180,000 the city of Winona expects to receive from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) for the purchase of right-of-way property for the upcoming Mankato Avenue reconstruction project. Because it is one-time revenue, it won’t benefit the city’s budget in future years.

The City Council voted unanimously to tentatively approve Ubl’s proposal.

“I tentatively approve this new budget, but as a note for future years, the library should be a priority for us to revisit in terms of services and personnel since that’s one of most public-facing and most utilized services in the city,” City Council member Eileen Moeller said.

City Council member Michelle Alexander praised city staff’s hard work to balance the budget. Regarding the staffing cuts, she added, “I have no problem with revisiting employees as long as we budget for them. If that tax rate is appropriate to cover the expenses, I think many of us will look at those employees and say, we want them back on the staff, but we need to fund them. So I look forward to that discussion for next year.”

“It’s going to be a challenge for us, but it’s a challenge we are going to be able to meet,” Borzyskowski said in an interview about the budget decisions. “Hopefully [the cuts] will be for a short time,” he added.

City staff have yet to spell out exactly what positions will be eliminated. Citing concerns about personnel issues, Ubl said he will present that information to the public and the City Council on December 20, the same night the council will take its final vote on the budget.

Sherman said he was comfortable with that timeline, saying city staff were in the best position to determine where the city could afford to cut. “I guess I don’t have any concerns about the public not having a say on, ‘Put more people in the library and take them out of police,’ or, ‘Put more people on police and take them out of the water department or tree crew.’ That’s up to staff to decide what is feasible because they’re the ones that do it from day to day,” he said.

Ubl clarified in interviews after Monday night’s meeting which departments would be affected by staffing cuts. During the meeting itself he simply told the City Council there would be $193,000 in reductions to “employee services.” Nevertheless, some council members were aware which departments were affected. Ubl said he shared his proposal to the council for the first time at Monday’s meeting, but that he had one-on-one conversations with all City Council members about the budget cuts leading up to Monday’s meeting. The Minnesota Open Meeting Law requires the City Council to discuss public issues in public and allows for staff to share information with council members outside public meetings but not to conduct a straw poll of what council members want.

Describing his private discussions with staff, Sherman said, “I know that I have and I hope that other council members have conveyed [constituents’ wishes to staff] along the way about what they view as essential for the public.”

Chris@winonapost.com