Members of the City of La Crosse Executive Committee voiced several concerns Friday over Mayor Tim Kabat’s recommendations for re-organizational changes that were offered as a solution to save city dollars, as COVID-19 has deprived tax revenue.
The series of budget cuts included consolidating departments, eliminating department heads, such as the city engineer and La Crosse Center director, as well as merging the civic center and street department with the parks department into one large office of operations. The suggested eliminated positions do not have exact end dates, and the mayor noted many people in those positions are eyeing retirement soon.
Outlining his plan, Kabat compared staff numbers to previous years. According to Kabat, the engineering department had 14 full-time equivalent positions in 2013 compared to 17 this year.
“If we all remember when public works were eliminated, we shifted an engineer from public works to engineering,” Kabat said. “Then they did some of their own re-organization to add staff. Even with the potential cuts, I don’t see that really as either a status quo or a significant change.”
He said there was a similar situation with the La Crosse Center, which had 15 full-time positions in 2013 compared to 16.5 this year. Some of those positions are furloughed or frozen because of COVID-19.
“I see this opportunity to merge, especially with the La Crosse Center, to have additional staff resources that might be available for big events when we need it without having to add more budgeted staff,” Kabat said.
Similarly, Kabat added that the planning department had 11 full-time staff in 2013. Today, the department has 12.5 positions authorized.
“Even with the loss of the staff, they still have the four planners that they had historically,” he said. “The assessor’s department back in 2013 had eight full-time positions authorized. In my proposal, there would be four full-time equivalents, plus contracts could help do the big box retail in those specialty property assessments.”
Kabat said staff would work on the proposal over the course of the next year so that it could be implemented in the 2022 budget and beyond. It would require council approval.
“I think, from a higher level, this is the direction that we should be going, and I hopefully have your support,” he said.
The members of the executive committee criticized the idea and even questioned Kabat’s method of delivering the proposal.
Council Member Barb Janssen said she had significant concerns about how the original letter was presented.
“It is concerning to see some extremely skilled staff members be on the chopping block,” Janssen said. “I would hope we would find ways to keep individuals if need be. We need to have more conversation and be respectful of our staff.”
Fellow member Andrea Richmond was frustrated with the mayor’s memo that addressed the ineffectiveness of staff.
“If there was such ineffectiveness with staff, has that gone to HR?” she asked. “Have people been written up on the position that they weren’t performing? The process that was presented was an error. You don’t send out an email on a Saturday to department heads informing them of these significant changes to their positions, some not even knowing their positions were going to be eliminated before hearing it on the media.”
Kabat countered that he did speak with staff that would be affected and alerted them that when people would retire, positions would be eliminated. He said he sent the memo out Saturday to give people enough time to review the proposal before meeting, but that memo was then forwarded to media.
“I think that is disrespectful because we do have real people in these positions,” Kabat said. “The fact that council members got this already Saturday is disappointing, but not surprising.”
Council President Martin Gaul acknowledged the city needed to make changes given the challenges of COVID-19 and the loss of state revenue. However, he said looking at prior years did not provide fair comparisons for the city.
“If you recall, when we made the changes a few years back,” Gaul said, “combining departments and making the changes, it had quite a bit of staff input. I think the end result of that was a more satisfied city staff. That’s what is, in my opinion, lacking here.”
Gaul did agree with eliminating open positions, calling it a necessary evil. However, he was concerned about the city falling behind on necessary amenities such as sidewalk inspections.
“I think that’s the challenge we’ll have is we can say to people, ‘You’re going to do this.’ The question is whether or not they actually have the ability to do the job,” Gaul said.
Gaul stated creating an operations department and eliminating the chief engineer position was unnecessary and detrimental. Additionally, he questioned whether the chief engineer and director of the La Crosse Center were looking to retire in the coming year, or if they were pressured to enter retirement.
“If that is our intention, we need to be honest about that,” Gaul said. “If you look at the shared revenue we have and the potential loss, the savings identified from the changes there are minimal.”
He also opposed putting the La Crosse Center under what he called a city internal umbrella.
“If we want to ensure that the La Crosse Center pays back the investment, the $42 million right now and the $80 million that we’ve got sitting down there, the time to jump off the horse is not when we’re halfway across the river,” Gaul said. “We need to let this get completed, and we need to have the expertise of current management structure to bring that property back online.”
He promised to use any mechanisms in his power to make sure that move did not happen, saying it would be a poor move for taxpayers and the business community.
In response, Kabat noted that the city did direct staff to help come up with solutions to the revenue problem. He added that it would not be unusual to combine some departments.
“For example, in recreating the director of public works, the parks, recreation, and forestry is not necessarily a stretch when it comes to that combination of public works because they are our infrastructure, like streets and trails,” Kabat said. “The La Crosse Center is different, and I acknowledge that, but I do think it is still a plan that makes sense.
“Unless the council is going to greatly increase our budget, we’re not going to have the people power to implement our goals for that facility. We would have the ability to cross-train and utilize staff from other departments.”
Kabat pointed to Parks and Recreation Director Jay Odegaard as an example of someone who has demonstrated he can work with different departments.
“He’s been doing that for several months, and this new world that we are living in has forced us to do more of that collaboration,” Kabat said. “The council has the ultimate say and they can do what they feel is right. I think if we got the right people together internally, we could come up with recommendations and staff suggestions.”
Richmond argued whether Odegaard was qualified to handle multiple departments.
“How do you put an operations director in charge to oversee an engineering department or a street department?” Richmond questioned. “That person you are proposing has a degree in park and rec. There is going to be pushback. You are not going to increase morale by doing this.”
She suggested pausing the idea until getting a better understanding of what the COVID-19 pandemic would be like in future months.
“Mayor, you are the leader of this city,” Richmond said. “That’s why you were elected. You are responsible for these positions. With the person that you are proposing to fill the operations position, he is basically taking over some of those responsibilities that you have. Is there going to be a reduction in your salary?”
While making final remarks, Kabat said he did not understand the level of anger directed at changes.
“In my role as mayor, as the day-to-day CEO of the organization, I know it better than you do, so I believe that this is the right way to do it,” Kabat said to the committee. “I appreciate the fact that the council has the ultimate decision. That is why we are having these conversations.”
Kabat suggested gathering more information to be presented at the next executive committee meeting, such as budget numbers for how much would be saved. He understood the final decision will likely look different than his proposal but added that the proposal was a catalyst to start the conversation to move away from the status quo.