A change to Grand Forks’ tentative 2021 city budget smoothed over at least one City Council member's worries.
Council members on Monday unanimously approved Mayor Brandon Bochenski’s spending plan for the upcoming year, which includes money to pay for new pensions for the city’s public safety workers.
The plan, in essence, would allow firefighters and police officers to retire earlier, but would cost the city more. In exchange for the more generous pension, they’ll give up the $1,000 raises Bochenski proposed for each city worker. The net effect is a $98,000 hike to city spending that will come out of a $1.2 million “stabilization” fund used to keep Grand Forks property taxes from fluctuating year-to-year.
Council member Danny Weigel, a UND police officer who’s pushed for the pension change for years, argued that it would help recruit and retain existing firefighters and police officers, who might otherwise head to other departments with more generous plans. That, in turn, could make the plan cheaper because the city wouldn’t have to spend as much money replacing the firefighters and officers who head to greener pastures.
“I think this will serve our first-responders well in the future,” Weigel said. “And I’m excited that we were able to get it implemented in the budget.”
But Weigel’s proposal wasn’t the only one put forward by City Council members during 2020’s fiscal go-round. Council member Dana Sande worries that the city-owned Alerus Center might not have the cash on hand to pay for larger-scale maintenance work if or when the sales tax enacted to build it expires in about a decade. He suggested assembling a task force to look at the center’s long-term finances.
“I don’t believe, under its current financial situation, that it is viable beyond 2035-ish,” Sande said. “The facility is going to be broke, related to capital improvements, and so we’ve got to figure that out.”
The budget still eliminates the city’s “welcoming coordinator” and sets up a $15,000 line item to help a nonprofit pay for that position in the future. The “roadmap” the coordinator is tasked with implementing is set to stay at the city for the moment. That job belonged to Robin David, a former UND administrator who ran unsuccessfully against Bochenski for mayor, until late last month.
Council member Katie Dachtler said the roadmap’s steering committee is figuring out how to transition from the 2020 to 2021 budget and may put the roadmap in a local nonprofit’s hands.
“Those talks are still ongoing,” Dachtler said. “But we are definitely working toward a compromise that’s going to make sure that this is a successful transition and that the work isn’t interrupted, because it is extremely important work for many many people in our community.”
Bochenski and Dachtler both indicated that as-yet-unnamed Grand Forks institutions have pledged $20,000 to pay for a welcoming coordinator.
Bochenski’s first budget would slightly reduce city property taxes, give city employees a $1,000 raise in lieu of the larger one they’d be in line for otherwise, and tweak payroll in seven city departments. Beyond pushing away the welcoming coordinator, the other high-profile staffing change is eliminating the city’s community and government relations officer position, which had been held by longtime city staffer Pete Haga until Haga's position was eliminated in late June.