An opportunity to conserve
June 10, 2013
by Dale Kovar

I was a young reporter covering the series of meetings in about 1980 when community leaders decided it was time for the City of Winsted to hire a city administrator.

In the 30-plus years since then, several individuals served in that position. Some barely stayed for a cup of coffee; some put in a number of years and were heralded for their good work. Often, as expected, this job was a stepping stone to a more lucrative position in a larger city.

With the current vacancy occurring, I strongly propose that the city pause for a moment and seriously consider not filling the position – at least for a couple years, to evaluate what, if any, difference it makes for city residents.

Nothing personal against any of them, but during those years, we’ve seen administrators who supervised the other city employees, and administrators who became one of them.

Even those who were regarded as “good” ones, did their share of kingdom-building and making government bigger (and thus more expensive).

During the early 2000s, there was justification for having someone on staff skilled in aspects of economic development to deal with frequent requests of potential developers.

Today, we have seen $4-per-gallon gas and property taxes that have increased 23 percent from 2010 to 2012. The tax increase was caused primarily by the state, but affects every commercial entity in every town.

I don’t mean to be negative, but I don’t see anyone investing in our downtowns until a statewide correction is made so an investor could purchase a building, pay the mortgage and property taxes, and still be able to rent it to a business at a rate that would be even close to affordable.

In the meantime, I ask the city to get back to the basics of government: maintain the streets and parks, operate the sewer and water systems, and let the police and fire departments keep us safe.

Beyond that, there’s very little the average citizen needs – or wants – from its local government.

None of those fundamental tasks require an administrator. If there’s a big project, it’s handed off to consultants and engineers, whether there is an administrator or not.

As an example, just a few miles away, Lester Prairie never did jump on the administrator bandwagon like most other little cities did.

Still, Lester Prairie experienced the same rush of housing growth as the neighboring towns, and has existed effectively with a relatively healthy downtown, with less staff all this time.

Also, since the boom times ended, the City of Mayer eliminated its full-time planner position, and reduced the clerk’s schedule from four days a week to three.

Watertown has also trimmed its administrative and planning staff.

With Local Government Aid being restored to cities by the state, I’m afraid municipal budgets will swell like a flooding river.

In reality, it would be better for all our governments to downsize themselves.

We appreciate the tough work of elected officials, commission members, etc., and realize there is work that needs to be done and staff needed to accomplish that.

But again, let’s get back to only the absolutely necessary services, and let the private market have a chance to rebound.

Winsted has this opportunity to make a bold move without hurting anyone by simply leaving vacant an open position.

If government costs us less, it would follow that our quality of life would improve.

Right now, there is a greater need for less cost than replacing staff at city hall.

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