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Erik Burgess, Published August 21 2013

Voxland vetoes restructuring of Moorhead city staff, says it's too expensive

MOORHEAD – In a rare move for the normally soft-spoken Moorhead mayor, Mark Voxland has vetoed an ordinance to reorganize city government that was passed overwhelmingly by the council.

The council worked on the ordinance for months after receiving many complaints that there is too much red tape in Moorhead City Hall.

The ordinance would replace the community services department and add two new departments to city government – engineering, and parks and recreation – and create a full-time, standalone deputy city manager.

Scott Hutchins, the current deputy city manager, is also the director of community services.

The reorganization ordinance was approved by a 7-1 vote Aug. 12, with Luther Stueland voting against it.

Voxland vetoed the ordinance this week, saying it doesn’t save money or make the city’s government structure less confusing.

“Any time you do a reorg that costs money and there’s no good reason to do it, then I don’t want to be a part of it,” Voxland said.

The Moorhead mayor cannot vote except as a tiebreaker, but he is given the power to veto. In his 12-year stint has mayor, Voxland has vetoed measures passed by the council two times.

Councilman Mark Altenburg, who spearheaded the reorganization, is upset with the veto, but said he believes the council will easily override the veto when it reconsiders the ordinance Monday. The city charter states that six votes are needed to overturn a mayoral veto.

“You don’t veto things that get 7-1 votes,” Altenburg said. “You’re going to get overridden, and now you’ve irked the council.”

Assistant or deputy?

In the proposed restructuring, the community services department, which Altenburg called a “hodge-podge” of city services, would be replaced with the planning and neighborhood services department. It would handle planning, zoning, mass transit, assessing and building codes.

Parks and recreation would be removed from the defunct community services department and made into its own department. Business services would move to the city manager, and engineering would be removed from the city manager and made into its own department.

Three new higher-level positions would be created, which Voxland said could cost the city up to $165,000.

Bumping the leader of parks and recreation to a department head would cost $8,500, said Jill Wenger, director of human resources. Hiring a standalone deputy city manager could cost between $105,000 and $153,000, she said.

Proponents of the reorganization argue the city already budgets for an assistant city manager, a vacant position that cost the city about $86,000 including benefits in 2013, and is budgeted to cost about $108,000 in 2014. Eliminating that position and budgeting for a deputy city manager would not cost much more, Altenburg said.

An assistant city manager would have no oversight of employees and would be more of a support person to the city manager, whereas a deputy city manager could step in the city manager’s absence, Wenger said.

Wenger said she was quoting the employee classification and compensation study the city completed earlier this year and that the actual wages could be lower.

For Voxland, keeping a cheaper assistant city manager on staff is a better option, but Altenburg argued that having a “strong number two” as deputy city manager would free City Manager Michael Redlinger to focus on higher-level issues.

“(The reorganization) creates a more efficient city government, and if that costs us $20,000 (or) $30,000, I think the council’s willing to move forward with that,” Altenburg said. “This is something the council’s been talking about for two years, and we put a lot of work into it.”

The new director of engineering, likely City Engineer Bob Zimmerman, already makes the salary of a department head so his pay would not increase with the proposal, Wenger said. Zimmerman is paid $114,235 a year.

‘Moving bubbles around’

Voxland said the reorganization shouldn’t have been done by council members, who he said were just “moving bubbles around“ and don’t have as good an understanding of what is needed within departments as city employees do.

The last major overhaul of city structure in 2002 was a “well thought out” plan proposed by the then-city manager, and a “true reorganization” would be employee-led, Voxland said.

The mayor also said he thinks council members were “looking at personalities, not job positions” while drafting the plan, possibly in an attempt to eliminate Hutchins and his department.

“It’s almost as though they have an ax to grind, and they’re trying to get rid of somebody,” Voxland said, referring to Hutchins.

Altenburg called Hutchins a “valuable employee,” and said no one is being laid off or forced out with the reorganization.

With an already tight budget getting even tighter this year – the city faces a $500,000 shortfall in the 2014 budget – the reorganization is “low-hanging fruit” that should be cut, Voxland said.

“I can’t see why, really, any of them would want to vote for this,” he said. “It really is poorly crafted. I think it does a disservice to our citizens with the way things have been juggled around.”

Altenburg said he wishes the mayor would’ve spoken up sooner instead of waiting to veto.

“He’s worked under the current system for 10 years, and I don’t think it works. He must believe that it does,” Altenburg said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518