City department heads, aldermen and other city leaders held a retreat last Friday to not only look at where the City of Merrill is right now but also consider what will have to be done for the city to move into a future where budgets will be tighter.
City Administrator Dave Johnson told those assembled that the biggest challenge going forward for the city will be determining how to deliver services with a shrinking staff level. He said already the staffing for all departments is at the “lowest level in living memory.” The Common Council will have to decide what the appropriate staffing levels for each department are as well as how to find out what services the residents value the most.
“The council hasn’t explored what the citizens want and are they willing to pay for those services,” Johnson said.
He said the effort will have to be made to poll the public in such a way that the citizens will feel as if their concerns matter to the council. He said getting results from between 30 and 40% of the population would be a very good return, adding that the survey would have to be sent to residents in some mailing the city is already sending out to ensure it is opened.
“We have to let them know that this is what will drive the process,” Johnson said. “If they don’t think anything is going to happen, nothing is going to happen in the way of getting the surveys back.”
He said without a survey of area residents, the council is left with making decisions on cutting services and then gauging the reaction of those who complain. He said this isn’t an effective way to govern.
“We have to make an effort,” he said. “We have to start somewhere.”
Johnson said another area the city has to make better preparations for the future on is in succession planning. He said some departments have the manpower to train future leaders for advancement, but some departments don’t have that luxury. This leaves the city having to recruit people from outside the government for some roles.
“We need to think about what we would do in the future,” Johnson said.
He said a key part of preparing the city for the financial challenges that lie ahead is fixing the city’s compensation and pay grids. With 60% of the city’s budget going toward pay and benefits, and some positions out of sync with others doing similar work, serious effort will have to be put in to make the entire system fair.
“We have some positions making $9 an hour while others are making $18 an hour,” Johnson said. “We need to reevaluate all positions.”
He said some of the higher paid positions would have to be “red circled” and not receive further pay increases while the lower grades move to catch up. When people in those positions retire, the pay rates can then be lowered to be more equitable with others.
“This will not be without cost,” he said. “But this process can be done in-house. We don’t have to hire an outside agency to do it for us.”
Several aldermen said the city had studied such a process before, only to scrap the plan as unworkable. Johnson said the process wouldn’t be easy, and the city’s three unions complicate possible solutions such as performance evaluations factoring into raises. He said that the work would pay off in savings, fairness and simplifying the payroll system, which Finance Director Kathy Unertl said is the most complex it has ever been and will only get more complex if it isn’t overhauled.
Johnson also walked the leaders through the concepts of strategic planning, which he said the entire city government needs to do in order to get a handle on what needs to be done to move the city forward. While the Police and Fire Departments have done their own strategic planning process recent, and the T.B. Scott Library has had one for years, Johnson said those plans should have been done after the city has come up with an organization-wide one.
“This would be a road map for our employees,” Johnson said. “Where we are going and how we’re going to get there.”
Johnson said the strategic plan would only be effective if the Common Council fully supports it.
“If that doesn’t happen, the department heads aren’t going to follow it,” he said.
The strategic plan would include a mission statement, core values and a vision statement. Johnson said while he was able to find a mission statement on a document after he took over, it required some digging and the statement was very out of date.
Unertl also briefed the group on the current state of the city’s finances, which she characterized as “good,” how the various Tax Increment Finance Districts were performing and a very preliminary look at the the budget for 2013.
No decisions were made on any of the presentations at Friday’s meeting, although the Common Council is expected to discuss them in the near future.