by Tammy Sakry
While Mayor Bob Ramsey came to the Jan. 10 Ramsey City Council meeting with a recommendation to terminate the city administrator as a way to save money, the rest of the council was not ready to act before knowing the facts.
Only Councilmember Colin McGlone and Jeff Wise voted for the mayor’s proposal, which would have eliminated the deputy administrator position, fired City Administrator Kurt Ulrich and hired the current deputy administrator, Heidi Nelson, as the administrator.
The recommendation has nothing to do with personalities, it is for budgetary reasons, said Mayor Ramsey.
Although the city was able to find ways to deal with the $1.5 million municipal center debt for 2012, it will be looking at another $1.5 million in 2013, he said.
Every year it’s a battle with the budget and he does not want to wait until November to start making budget decisions, Mayor Ramsey said.
Since 2007, the city has cut more 13 positions and is operating on $2 million less in the budget, without people noticing reductions in service, he said.
While staff has always managed to cut when asked, it’s not good enough for the mayor.
He wants to get Ramsey’s finances down to only what is needed to run the city, not the penny ante amounts it has been reducing over the years, the mayor said.
Mayor Ramsey said he does not relish this recommendation.
While he did not write down what his research was and thought process behind his recommendation, it was the culmination of a lot of things that happened over three years, he said.
Other than the actual recommendation, there is nothing in writing on which the council could base its decision, said Councilmember Sarah Strommen.
The mayor has included nothing about what he studied, his findings or why this would be the best option compared with other possibilities, she said.
“How is the elimination of the position going to get us were we need to be,” Strommen said.
The mayor’s proposal is a recommendation for action, but it is not a plan for a balanced budget, she said.
The council needs the balance sheets to see how this is going to help, according to Strommen.
Councilmembers need a plan on how to achieve what they want to achieve, Strommen said.
The council needs time to evaluate things, including the actual cost benefit of using consultants over using in-house staff and if the city is really realizing the cost savings it expected, she said.
The council does not have to wait for November to talk about the 2013 budget, but it also does not need to make a dramatic change at the first meeting of the year, especially changes at the top that can indicate the city has some political instability, Strommen said.
Before making any decision, the council needs to go through the process, she said.
When the city was in the market for a new city administrator, it hired a research firm to search for a candidate that fit what the city’s goals and visions were and that is not being done under this scenario, said Councilmember David Elvig.
The council has no idea if Nelson wants the job or if she is capable of doing the job as she does not have a track record as a city administrator, he said.
The city has had a great deal of success over the years, but it still has the reputation of being politically unstable, Elvig said.
While Councilmember Randy Backous said he agrees that the city needs to continually look at staffing costs, he does not have enough information to make a decision on the mayor’s recommendation.
“This could have very serious ramifications that could damage the city for years,” he said.
“We need to study all of the options,” including recommendations made by Ulrich on how to cut the budget and/or reducing the Housing and Redevelopment Authority budget, Backous said.
The city is more heavily invested in developing than other cities and cutting the city administrator is not a sign of a city that thinks it’s growing, he said.
Everyone agrees the city needs to do something to bring the budget down, but let’s get the information and do it carefully, Backous said.
Something needs to happen soon, said Wise.
Among the things the council will have to deal with is the road maintenance plan, which has been kicked down the road by previous councils, he said.
Waiting until October or November to look at the budget is a mistake because the budget hole in 2013 will be the biggest since he joined the council three years ago, Wise said.
“I think we have spent … enough time studying these things,” he said.
While he did not support the mayor’s proposal Tuesday, Councilmember Jason Tossey said he would support the mayor’s recommendation if something is not done before March.
It is very telling to have residents and people from other cities, including the Champlin mayor, speak for Ulrich, “but the financial facts are what they are and I am not willing to kick it down the road,” he said.
Residents speak out
Resident Chris Riley also urged the council to have a well thought out process before making a decision.
There are other proposals out there and the council needs to follow a process to make a good decision, he said.
Decisions like this take a lot of planning and it takes more than the mayor going through a couple years worth of studies, said former Councilmember David Jeffrey.
The council needs to take a step back and take time to study its staff and what each staff member does for the city, he said.
During an earlier work session Tuesday, one of the suggestions was eliminating the economic development/marketing position, but Aaron Backman has brought in a new business that is bringing 100 jobs to the city, something he does not see consultants, like Landform, doing, Jeffrey said.
About five years ago, the city hired a consultant to study the city’s organizational efficiency, perhaps it would be good to pull that study and see what the staff functions are, said former Councilmember Mary Jo Olson.
While the council has to make difficult decisions, it also needs to make sensible and long range decisions, said former Councilmember Susan Anderson.
The city needs both the city administrator and the deputy city administrator, who are knowledgeable, competent and strong professionals, to run the city, she said.
The city needs to be ready when development comes, Anderson said.
“Please do not lop off heads at the top just to lop off heads. It’s not the answer,” she said.
Much of the success in turning around former Ramsey Town Center (RTC) project can be attributed to the city leadership, said Planning Commissioner Ralph Brauer in a letter.
The project has had a phoenix-like recovery and the city will soon have the things residents have dreamed of for so many year, he said.
“Don’t change the coaching staff when you are on a winning streak,” Brauer said.
If the council has a target amount it wants cut from the budget and a day it wants to hear back from him, Ulrich said he would find a way to accomplish what the council wants.
“I will produce for you,” he said.
If he cannot get it done, the council can consider terminating his contract again, Ulrich said.
Don’t limit the scope, said Wise.
All departments should be looked at, including public safety, he said.
Tammy Sakry is at firstname.lastname@example.org