With newly appointed Mayor Doug Henke presiding, Kenyon’s City Council reviewed its proposed 2020 operating budget at its Sept. 4 work session, hearing from each department head about proposed budget changes.

City Administrator Mark Vahlsing prepared his budget with a 6.6% projected levy increase, similar to last year. However, Vahlsing said his estimate doesn’t include this year’s property assessments. Once those are included, the actual levy would lower if property values have risen overall.

Vahlsing said that the 6.6% before-assessment levy increase would leave the budget in a tight spot and encouraged the council to consider a slightly larger preliminary levy increase of up to 9%.

“The budget is tighter than I thought it was going to be,” he said.

Vahlsing noted that basic personnel expenses have risen in recent years. In particular, higher health insurance costs take up almost half of the increase in the city’s 2020 budget. Vahlsing highlighted not only the expense but also the importance of the city providing good quality health insurance.

“We have good insurance,” Vahlsing said. “I think it’s one of the main things that helps us keep our employees.”

The council will set its levy at its October meeting. It will have the option to lower the levy until the final budget is approved in December, but won’t be able to increase it.

Still, the council preferred to stick with Vahlsing’s smaller proposed budget, and may even look to shrink spending further.

“I like the 6.6%,” said Councilor Richard Nielsen. “We can go down from there, which I’d like to, but it’s a good maximum.”

Councilor John Mortenson suggested the council consider an only slightly larger levy increase of 7.2%. That would add only about $7,000 to the city budget of more than $2 million.

Municipal liquor

Municipal Liquor Store Manager Matt Bartel asked the council to fund a modest wage increase for part-time employees, from $10 to $10.75. Bartel said that even as the minimum wage has risen under Minnesota law, the Liquor Store’s part-time employees haven’t gotten a raise to keep up.

Otherwise, Bartel’s budget request was similar to last year. He requested $3,500 for general repairs, a $1,000 increase from last year’s budget request but a more than $1,500 decrease from this year’s spending to date. Bartel said a number of improvements are still needed to bring the Liquor Store into full compliance with health and safety codes.

Library

Kenyon Library Director Michelle Otte requested a slight increase to pay for two new computers instead of the typical one per year. Otte said that the purchase is necessary because several of the library’s older computers currently run on Windows 7 and cannot be upgraded to Windows 10. Windows 7 will reach its “end of life” in January of next year, meaning that Microsoft will discontinue support and updates, including security patches.

Henke raised concern about the amount of budget spent on library materials.

Otte said that she’s been working hard to reduce the library’s overall costs. Otte said that while the library receives significant discounts on new books and almost all of its magazines and magazine subscriptions are donated, it still isn’t cheap to purchase the latest books. She’s been able to save about 30% on DVDs by purchasing them from Amazon. Even though it’s extra work for her to buy them from Amazon rather than suppliers, she says it’s worth it because it’s enabled her to keep the supply budget flat and save taxpayers money.

Councilor Richard Nielsen praised Otte for using taxpayer dollars efficiently while providing the latest reading materials for patrons.

“I think your increase is minimal, and maybe it should be a little more,” Nielsen said.

Otte noted that over the last year and a half, the library has seen a 52% decline in the number of digital materials checked out, while simultaneously experiencing a 7% increase in the number of physical materials checked out. She said this shows that even in the digital age, there’s still plenty of appetite for paper books and traditional libraries.

Police

Police Chief Lee Sjolander said the department is going through major changes with the departure of two full-time employees. As a result, the Police Department’s full-time salaries have fallen, but part-time salaries have increased significantly.

Rather than fully replace the employees, Sjolander says he’s working to outsource the training and background check responsibilities, which would increase efficiency and make his costs more predictable.

Sjolander said the department is also interested in hiring a part-time administrative assistant to help with office duties. He said that without an office assistant, he and his staff often struggle to respond to telephone calls and do administrative paperwork while fulfilling the other responsibilities.

Sjolander said that he’d like to be flexible with the position, depending on the needs of applicants. Such a position could even be partially shared with another city department, he said.

Vahlsing said that in order to attract strong, qualified candidates, the council would likely need to pay at least $16 an hour. Councilors liked the idea and thought that such a person could reduce the substantial workloads of Administrative Assistant Holli Gutnekcht and Finance Clerk Sue Dodds.

Finally, Sjolander also warned the council that it could be facing major expenses if Goodhue County decides to switch to encrypted CB radios. In that case, every CB radio owned by the Police and Fire departments would need to be replaced, and the costs would be “astronomical,” at thousands of dollars per radio.

Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation director Wayne Ehrich said that the department is looking to split a part-time summer maintenance position with the Fire department. The position could include lawn mowing and weed whacking on city properties as well as painting fire hydrants.

Ehrich’s proposed budget includes funding to maintain the city pool, including a new layer of paint and a new shed to store pool chemicals. He’s requesting $65,000 for street maintenance, with hopes of not only crack filling and chip sealing existing streets, but also paving the alley between Sixth and Seventh streets, and Forest and Spring streets.

Ehrich warned councilors that the most concerning expense wasn’t even on the budget. The city’s street sweeper poses a significant health risk to its driver because the cab is poorly designed, causing silica sand to sweep into the cabin.

While he didn’t ask for money to replace the street sweeper with a safer model, Ehrich said that doing so before being mandated to do so by OSHA could save the city money and protect the health of its employees.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew.

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