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Taking responsibility or micro-managing

What one council member described as taking responsibility for the budget was termed "micro-managing" by other members in a lively discussion that closed Monday night's Alexandria City Council meeting.

The council voted 4-1 to reject Ward 1 council member Virgil Batesole's motion to establish ground rules for the city's budget committee.

The budget committee is comprised of the mayor, the city administrator and one council member. This year's members are Mayor Dan Ness, Administrator Jim Taddei and council member Dave Benson.

The committee meets with department heads and establishes budget recommendations for the council to consider.

Batesole said the full council should be directly involved in the budget process, especially this year when the city is facing cuts from the state Legislature and has to come up with $239,000 to pay for its share of a reconstruction project on Broadway between 3rd and 8th Avenue.

(City staff later reminded Batesole that the Broadway project wouldn't be part of next year's budget since the work isn't scheduled until 2014.)

Batesole said the council should set ground rules for the budget committee, such as allowing no increases in taxes, levy, fees and assessments, making reductions in all departments and assuming decreased revenues in 2012.

Council member Elroy Frank viewed the rules as micromanaging. He said that as elected officials, the council's job is to set policy. He said that during his 14 years on the council, there's never been a problem with the council acting on the recommendations of its staff and committees.

Council member Sara Carlson agreed with Frank. She said it would be fine to schedule a work session with the budget committee but the council shouldn't be micro-managing what the committee or the city's 30 other committees are doing.

Batesole said that setting ground rules is not micromanaging because under the city's charter, the council is ultimately responsible for the budget.

Carlson said that a budget committee is also established under the city's charter and it spends many hours going over the numbers. The council, she said, has several opportunities to change the recommendations that are presented, such as during the work sessions.

Batesole said that in the work sessions he's attended, there's been very little discussion and the council accepts whatever the budget committee recommends.

Carlson told Batesole he must not be attending the same ones she's been at because there have been good discussions and changes.

Frank agreed with Carlson, saying the full council has had a lot of discussion about what to cut during work sessions and regular meetings.

"You kind of make it look like the council doesn't know what's going on here with the budget," Frank told Batesole. "I disagree with that 100 percent."

Council member Dave Benson said that he believes the budget committee does a comprehensive job. He said it should be allowed to follow the guidelines it has in the past without ground rules, which would complicate the issue.

Council member Owen Miller said that department heads bring their budgets to the committee and are often asked to revise them, sometimes more than once, before the budget goes before the council where the amounts could be revised again.

Miller said that ground rules would limit the budget committee's effectiveness.

"If I go into a meeting [where ground rules are already set], where is my creativity?" Miller asked. "Where is my ability to think outside the box?"

The council voted 4-1 against Batesole's recommendation to establish ground rules.

Other council decisions

The Alexandria City Council's budget committee discussion came at the end of the meeting under "old and other business." Before that, the council:

• Approved plans for a "send off" event for local National Guard soldiers who will be deployed to Kuwait on May 27.

• Agreed to block off sections of Jefferson Street to accommodate the Jefferson High School Marching Band rehearsals this summer.

• Issued an off-sale liquor license to Coborn's, doing business as Cash Wise Liquor, which is purchasing Payless Liquors.

• Issued an on-sale liquor license to Home Run Entertainment, doing business as Main Street Brewery, which will operate out of the building once known as Old Broadway.

• Agreed to allow the new owners of Bug-A-Boo Bay to hold outdoor events on May 21 (its grand opening), July 2 and September 3.

• Acting as the Alexandria Economic Development Authority, approved a request for tax increment financing for a 24-unit rental townhome project east of Grand Arbor. It will provide housing for low to moderate incomes.

• Authorized the arts advisory committee to apply for a $10,000 Arts Legacy Grant to build an outdoor sculpture, "Gathering Tree," in Big Ole Central Park.

• Authorized a "Harvest Duathlon" running and biking event on August 27.

• Approved bids for a truck, plow and lawnmower for the park department.

• Approved a joint powers agreement between the Alexandria Police Department and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

• Approved Police Chief Rick Wyffels' request to purchase a Crown Victoria squad car for his department.

• Approved an engineering agreement for a mechanical stormwater treatment system on north Lake Victoria.

• Approved revisions in the Viking Speedway schedule.

• Agreed to purchase an aerial truck from Alexandria Light and Power that will be used by the park department.

Watch for more details about some of these council decisions in upcoming issues of the Echo Press.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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