After a rather short discussion compared to years past, city officials unanimously green lighted the 2016 city budget Tuesday evening and moved forward in consideration of the elimination of the elected municipal street commissioner position, upon the retirement of current commissioner Dick Lupton.
During considerable discussion, Committee of the Whole members weighed in on the proposed charter ordinance to eliminate the street commissioner position, in favor of a hired Public Works Director/City Engineer position.
Alderman Dave Sukow spoke in favor of hearing public input before any further action.
“I would recommend we have public input before we move forward! We need to hear what the public has to say about this,” the sixth district alderman said.
“I would like to allow the public the opportunity to talk to us before we consider moving forward with an ordinance. If we don’t, and move with an ordinance reading first, I feel we will send the message that our mind is already made up.”
First District Alderman Chris Malm agreed with Sukow.
However, mayor Bill Bialecki, and other members favored a first reading of the ordinance at Tuesday night’s Common Council meeting, followed by a public hearing at December’s council meeting.
Sukow also voiced budget concerns in terms of salary and benefits for a prospective Public Works Director/City Engineer position.
According to finance director Kathy Unertl and city administrator Dave Johnson, though, the new position would have little to no budget impact, as cost of salary and benefits has already been budgeted.
The pair also advised, if the position is not created, the budgeted funds would be allocated toward future engineering projects.
A motion from 7th District alderman Rob Norton ultimately passed; moving forward with a first reading of the ordinance at the council meeting.
The first reading was unanimously approved during the council meeting, with a public hearing on the topic to be scheduled for December’s meeting.
In regard to the 2016 city budget, Unertl advised the council of progress compared to years past, including a .66% increase in the tax levy from last year, amounting to $35,194 and a rate reduction of $3 per $75,000 of property value.
During budget discussion, council members deliberated over four provisions consisting of renovation versus demolition of the former municipal pool at Stanges Park, a request from the Merrill Fire Department for the purchase of a brush truck, the recent city wage study and the recently proposed downtown “pocket park.”
Sukow suggested the re-addition of funding for renovations to Stange’s Park, including the replacement of restrooms, as well as the demolition and back-fill of the former pool.
Alderman Pete Lokemoen objected, stating, “During the all-day budget meeting, we decided to close the bathrooms due to not meeting ADA compliance. I don’t see the point in spending this amount of money.”
Unertl advised the funding requested by Sukow would require additional borrowing by the city.
A motion by 8th District Alderman Tim Meehean for the budgeting of $45,000 for demolition and back-fill of the former pool passed.
Lokemoen broached the topic of the brush truck request, stating he had spoken with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, as well as fire chief Dave Savone earlier Tuesday afternoon.
“The DNR advised their brush trucks cost less than $75,000,” Lokemoen stated. “I asked chief Savone to justify why our brush truck will be 3-times that amount.”
As Savone explained Tuesday, brush trucks are indeed built by the DNR, but are not sold to outside agencies and also do not meet National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.
“I spoke with a wildland fire apparatus shop in Tomahawk and was advised the cost of building a brush trick is approximately $60,000, with an additional $13,000 in labor cost,” Savone explained. “But they do not meet NFPA standards. To meet NFPA standards would cost an additional $20-30,000. The trucks priced at $75,000 do not include communications equipment or tools. We could get a truck that meets NFPA standards for between $150-$175,000. The DNR builds trucks for their own use, but no longer provides trucks for other agencies. A key reason is they do not want to compete with the private sector.”
Savone further added, the department’s equipment meeting NFPA standards played a role in the department’s recent qualification in being ranked in the top 2% of fire service nation-wide.
“We are not required to meet NFPA standards, but it does play a role in our qualification,” Savone stated. “If we were to have an incident in which our equipment did not meet those standards, there would be questions and we would have to provide answers. Dollars and cents just would not be an acceptable answer.”
Bialecki asked Savone if $160,000 would cover the cost of an adequate brush truck, to which Savone agreed.
“I feel very comfortable in saying we could purchase a brush truck to serve our needs for that amount,” he said.
Sukow’s motion to reduce the requested amount by the Merrill Fire Department from $200,000 to $160,000, passed.
Lokemoen and Malm opposed the approval of the recent city wage study conducted by Madsion-based Carlson Dettman Consulting.
“I have yet to see the results of the study, how can I approve what I haven’t seen?” Lokemoen stated.
Bialecki and other council members argued the study had been presented prior to Tuesday’s meeting, however individual names had been omitted from the presentation.
“I remember when we did the very first study several years ago and it was sidetracked when names came up,” Sukow stated. “Folks began to argue over who got paid what. It gets divisive when you start discussing individuals.”
Bialecki agreed, as did Meehean.
“If I remember right, when we agreed to do the study, if we paid for it, we would accept it,” Bialecki stated.
“If we keep our hands out of this, there can be no accusations of favoritism,” Johnson added. “That is one of the reasons we went with Carlson Dettman in the first place. Everything, including employee appeals, goes through Carlson Dettman.”
“This is all handled independently of the city. It’s a win-win for everybody,” Meehean agreed.
“If all of you are ok with this, I’m not going to buck it,” Lokemoen countered.
As the discussion drew to a close, Malm motioned for the removal of the proposed pocket park from the budget, seconded by Lokemoen. The council had previously twice voted against the pocket park, which would involve the city purchasing the vacant former Guy’s Shop lot on East Main Street from Lincoln Community Bank.
“It’s there, we know it’s there,” Malm stated, “so we could come back and re-visit this in another year. If Merrill Federal returns their piece of property and finishes it like Lincoln Community did, it may not be a pocket park, but at least it would be a useable green space.”
“It cannot be used as a park unless it fits the plans we have for it,” he said. “It would be a sloping green space. If we don’t make it a pocket park, they plan to cover it with rock. They see rock as requiring no maintenance. I can’t imagine rock would be very attractive.”
Sukow raised his concerns of what he deemed generosity on behalf of the city, several years ago when Lincoln Community Bank requested assistance.
“When Lincoln Community built their new building, they asked for a good-sized chunk of money from the Re-Development Authority, to finish their back alley,” Sukow explained. “Boy, it sure would be nice to see them reciprocate. It makes me sad to think they forgot about the city helping them when they needed it. Yet when we ask them to work with us, they refuse to lower their price any further and demand a cash payment.”
Malm’s motion was ultimately defeated.
In other matters Tuesday evening, the council approved a 3% water and sewer service fee increase for 2016 and ratified the 2016 contract with the Merrill Professional Police Association.