Council reviews city administrator retirement option

Spring Lake Park city leaders discussed a phased retirement agreement for longtime City Administrator Barbara Nelson during a recent council workshop.

Nelson will mark 33 years of city service this September. Her retirement and options for hiring a successor filled an hour-and-a-half meeting March 29.

In 2008, Spring Lake Park City Council members began discussing Nelson’s pending retirement.

At that time, city leaders expressed a desire to hire someone who could work with her for a few years and ultimately be promoted to city administrator.

“It was important to the council to maintain our existing culture and provide for a seamless transition,” Nelson wrote in March 29 background memo.

Four years ago, Nelson said the council began planning to eliminate current Executive Secretary Karen Sorensen’s position and hire an administrative assistant who Nelson would train and mentor as a city administrator position replacement.

However, even though Nelson had budgeted for that position annually, council members ended up cutting those funds because of significantly reduced local government aid and imposed levy limits.

“Phased retirement is a win-win situation for both myself and the city,” Nelson wrote. “I can work 20 hours a week and still receive my full Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) pension.”

If Nelson applied for phased retirement effective June 1, 2012 it would save the city money on her salary and make money available to hire an administrative assistant who would interview and be hired with the understanding the new position represented a training opportunity, she said.

Her phased retirement agreement would be for one year and could be renewed on an annual basis up to a maximum of five years, Nelson told the council.

According to a spreadsheet analysis of cost savings prepared by Nelson, the city would save $48.980 in wages, $7,201 in PERA contributions and $3,747 in Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) and Medicare contributions if her phased retirement plan application request was approved by the council.

Part of the total savings of $59,829 would fund the administrative assistant position salary. “The city will still realize a considerable savings,” Nelson wrote.

The March 29 succession planning workshop was also attended by the following city department heads: Police Chief Doug Ebeltoft; Marian Rygwall, parks and recreation department director; Barry Brainard, the building official, fire marshal and code enforcement director; and Public Works Director Terry Randall.

“This [new] person would be assisting me. It’s important for someone just coming in to work with planning and zoning and files so they know where everything is. It’s kind of a hybrid position and the person has to come to the office with certain skills,” Nelson said, referring to the fact she currently serves as Spring Lake Park’s city clerk and treasurer.

The proposed job description for the assistant to the city administrator, clerk/treasurer position reviewed by the council last week lists a bachelor’s degree in business administration, public administrator or a related field as a training and experience qualification, as well as five years “preferably in a municipal setting,” three years of supervisory experience and experience with planning and zoning.

The education requirement listed in the job description prompted initial comments from the council.

Councilmember Dale Dahl strongly suggested the city hire someone with a master’s degree in public administration or a related field.

Nelson disagreed. “I don’t think a master’s degree is needed for this size of city,” she said.

“In the long run, hiring someone with a master’s will cost more.”

She mentioned a potential salary range of $110,000 to $125,000 for a position applicant with the higher degree. “I’m not sure the city [council] is willing to pay that,” Nelson said.

Dahl and Mayor Cindy Hansen disagreed, pointing out the city could take advantage of the current job market and hire someone at a lower cost.

“That was my feeling during the last workshop,” Hansen said, referring to an initial Feb. 13 succession workshop. “We could take advantage of that.”

Councilmember Bill Nash stressed the city needed to hire someone with public sector experience.

Nelson said that the city council might want to consider interviewing an existing assistant administrator.

“Just because a person has a master’s degree doesn’t mean they will be a good fit for the city of Spring Lake Park,” Nelson said.

The four department heads in attendance at the March 29 workshop helped Nelson draft the job description proposal for the new assistant administrator.

Spring Lake Park department heads would help screen potential candidates for possible interviews, Nelson said, eventually picking the best four or five people.

Councilmember Barbara Carlson was the first to mention support for Nelson’s phased retirement proposal.

She recalled Nelson’s city administrator transition. In 1995, Nelson was promoted to the newly created position of city administrator, clerk/treasurer when Donald Busch retired after his 30 years of city service.

Nelson recommended the council hire the new assistant to the city administrator, clerk/treasurer by July 1.

“I’d like to have them in here for the election and union negotiations,” Nelson said.

The person hired would have a six-month probationary period, she said. “My goal is to be out of here in a year,” Nelson said.

Council members agreed at the end of the workshop that Nelson’s proposed phased retirement agreement should be placed on their April 16 meeting agenda.

Tim Hennagir is at [email protected]