The Bemidji City Council on Monday voted to eliminate the city's community development director position, despite the objections of the city manager.
The 4-3 decision was made during an emotional meeting on the city's 2010 budget. City staff had recommended that the council consider a 21.9 percent levy increase for 2010, but the majority of the council found that figure too high.
"I know it's a drastic measure," said Councilor Greg Negard, who made the motion to cancel the community development position at the end of the year, "but these are drastic times."
John Chattin, city manager, urged the council to make its budget decisions based on priorities and not singular positions.
"I think we are doing a very grave disservice by focusing on one position," agreed Mayor Richard Lehmann.
But Councilor Barb Meuers said she was unwilling to raise the levy and place the city's tax burden on fixed-income taxpayers.
"I don't look at this as essential services," she said.
Voting in favor of eliminating the position were Councilors Negard, Meuers, Jerry Downs and Roger Hellquist.
Opposed were Lehmann and Councilors Ron Johnson and Kevin Waldhausen.
"Should we talk about eliminating the fire chief next?" Johnson said following the vote. "I think this is the stupidest thing this council has ever done."
The community development director position was approved in 2008 and Rita Albrecht was hired for the position in May 2008 from 20 applications received. Her starting salary was $57,696.
Downs said the position has not turned out to be what he had expected and supported its elimination.
Its duties - which include grant-writing, managing the city's economic development programs and maintaining communications with the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning office - could be redistributed to others, he said.
"There is no reason it can't be put back to the way it was," he said.
The agenda called for a discussion on the 2010 preliminary levy increase. Staff had recommended a 21.9 percent levy increase, or an increase of $673,000. That would have amounted to $59 for the owner of a $100,000 home.
But the council never took a vote on the levy, first opting instead to eliminate Albrecht's position.
Downs did later make a motion that the levy be set at 19.9 percent, but he withdrew the motion after Public Works Director/City Engineer Craig Gray suggested that the levy decision be delayed.
A council work session has been set for Aug. 24 to discuss annexation issues and budget needs for 2010, Gray said, and he did not want the council to make a decision on the levy until hearing what may be required next year for annexation.
The 21.9 percent proposed levy increase is based on the replacement of more than $450,000 lost in Local Government Aid cuts in the last two years and the need for about $300,000 in bond payments for street improvement bonds. The city will gain nearly $80,000 in 2010 due to the expiration of the Fairgrounds Tax Abatement District.
Ron Eischens, the city's finance director, said the reason for the high levy increase was mainly due to a stipulation in which a city can levy back all of its LGA losses in 2010. But, if the city does not levy back those losses in 2010, it will not be able to do so in the future due to levy limits.
Johnson blamed Gov. Tim Pawlenty for Bemidji's difficult budget situation, saying the loss in LGA is a loss in needed revenue.
"It's a Pawlenty levy," he said. "We have to replace it. It's too much of our budget not to."
The council considered eliminating the community development director position earlier this year. Then, Chattin said he would like to consider the entirety of the city's staffing rather than just focusing on one position.
Negard again brought up Albrecht's position on Monday, asking Chattin if he had further looked at that position or if he had a list of other possible staffing cuts.
"I think we've pared down our staff to the bare minimum," said Chattin, saying that the city has eliminated 10 positions in the past two years.
Waldhausen, noting that the city this year drastically cut the allowed overtime for staffers, asked Chattin how it would be possible for others to pick up the duties that Albrecht now performs.
Chattin said most of that work would be done by department heads, who are salaried employees, so they would just work longer hours.
"Morale will go in the toilet," he said.
"Morale in the community is down," responded Meuers, who said the community expects the council to listen to its requests, such as when 1,000 petitioners present a document to the council objecting to the Bemidji Regional Event Center.
Waldhausen responded to Meuers' comment by saying that the council did not listen to the community last week when it voted against a ban on additional rental properties in single-family homes.