A few parts of Mayor Brandon Bochenski’s proposed 2021 budget gave some Grand Forks City Council members pause on Monday.
One worried about long-term maintenance costs at the city-owned Alerus Center and how they could hinder UND. Another made a case for new public safety retirement plans, and a third pushed against Bochenski’s plan to, in essence, move a part-time “welcoming coordinator” job from the city’s ledgers to an as-yet-undetermined nonprofit and have the mayor and other city staff take over the job’s duties.
“While I would absolutely welcome and love for you to continue working and being passionate about diversity and inclusion work, you are going to find that your time is going to be slowly taken up by some of these other roles that the mayor has,” City Council member Katie Dachtler told Bochenski.
The welcoming coordinator job is currently held by Robin David, a former UND administrator and one of three people who ran unsuccessfully against Bochenski in Grand Forks’ mayoral race last month.
Bochenski said he does not plan to eliminate the “community roadmap” David is tasked with enacting, and said repeatedly on Monday that he is confident he and other Grand Forks administrators could shoulder her workload, as well.
“We’re coming from a mayor that worked eight hours a week, and now I’m full-time,” Bochenski said, referring to Mike Brown, Grand Forks’ former longtime mayor who Bochenski beat handily in June. “And full-time to me means 50 or 60 hours a week, so that frees up about 52 hours that I’m able to give a week to the community. The reason that I ran was to help the community, the community that’s been good to me, and the community that I live in. So I’m going to run it the way that I see fit and this is part of it.”
David said she received her two-weeks’ notice late last week, which would make July 31 her last day as the coordinator. Dachtler pushed against Bochenski’s plan at a meeting last week as well, and on Monday she was joined by a series of other residents who wrote letters or addressed council members in person. Speakers worried that the roadmap and David’s duties would fall to the wayside in Bochenski’s portfolio.
“The word is ‘delegate,’” said Sarah Galbraith. “I’m not saying you can’t do it all. I’m saying that with help you can be better.”
Council member Danny Weigel, a UND police officer, has repeatedly pushed for a retirement plan for the city’s police officers and firefighters that would offer them a shorter and cheaper path to retirement.
“We’ve been talking about this for two years and I feel like we’ve just punted it down the field continually. Or, in Mr. Bochenski’s case,” Weigel said, gesturing to the mayor, who was an NCAA and professional hockey star, “we’ve iced the puck every time we’ve got a chance to do so. Something’s not working. I really think we need to get it implemented.”
Weigel said that if Grand Forks’ public safety personnel forewent the $1,000 annual raises they’d receive under Bochenski’s budget plan, shifting them to the more generous retirement package would cost the city another $119,000 in 2021.
The retirement plan Weigel proposed is a version of the ubiquitous North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System plan. It’s more expensive, but Weigel argued that it could be cheaper in the long run because the more appealing plan could keep public safety staff from leaving and, thus, save the city money it would otherwise spend on their replacements. Police Chief Mark Nelson said training and equipping a new police officer costs at least $50,000.
And Dana Sande, the council’s president and an administrator at the UND Aerospace Foundation, worried about how the city could foot the bill for medium- and large-scale maintenance work at the Alerus Center, and the effect it could have on the university. Budget projections presented to council members on Monday indicate the city will have about $36 million set aside to continue paying for that type of maintenance work after a sales tax that currently foots the bill for it expires in 2029.
Sande worries that a replacement sales tax might not make it out of Grand Forks City Hall or might get shot down by voters, which means further maintenance could gobble up that nest egg and leave the city scrambling to find a new funding source.
“The University of North Dakota is using our facility to recruit student-athletes, and they’ve consistently told us that we need to have quality facilities in order to help them recruit,” Sande said. “What I don’t want is us getting into a situation where we don’t have the money to continue to improve the facility and put UND into a bad position where they’re playing football in a facility that’s running down.”
Council members are set to consider giving preliminary approval to the mayor’s budget in early August.