Duluth council candidates outline plans for city budgetCity Council candidates squared off for the first time at a forum hosted Tuesday by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
City Council candidates squared off for the first time at a forum hosted Tuesday by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce.
The 90-minute event drew 10 candidates to the Playground Theater, including five At Large, three 4th District and two 1st District contenders.
Jackie Halberg, 4th District incumbent, didn’t sugarcoat the situation facing the city because of recent cuts in state aid.
“The way I look at all the numbers right now, we are going to need to make cuts,” she said. “There will be difficult decisions to make. But we have a shortage, and we’re going to have to tackle that.”
Garry Krause, an academic dean for Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College who is running against Halberg, said there may be opportunities to restructure city government and improve its efficiency. But this may also require some up-front costs.
“The city needs to look at investing in its employees through training. For us to be lean and efficient, we need to invest in our people,” he said.
Wallace Newquist, a retired street maintenance worker also running for the 4th District seat, said the city should turn to its employees for ideas about how to improve operations and reduce costs. He also called for a thorough review of all city operations.
“The city should reduce its operating costs by going through and seeing what people are doing,” he said. “We should see how many people are sitting around doing nothing. I think there are still a lot of places where money is being spent wastefully.”
Todd Fedora, a banker and sitting 1st District councilor, said that with local government aid from the state accounting for 38 percent of Duluth’s general fund budget, the city remains vulnerable to additional cuts going forward.
“I will continue to focus on the most efficient utilization of our assets,” he pledged.
Fedora said he also would work to reduce impediments to development in an effort to bolster city finances.
“I think the city needs to increase its revenues by increasing the tax base, rather than by raising taxes,” he said.
Jennifer Julsrud, who is challenging Fedora in the 1st District, said that as president of the Duluth Public Utilities Commission, she is dedicated to addressing the city’s infrastructure needs.
“I actually enjoy looking at the difficult challenges the city faces and finding solutions,” she said.
But Julsrud said she doubts that further cuts to city staff are part of the answer.
“I think we’ve already cut to the bare bones,” she said. “I’d like to see a push toward increasing staffing levels.”
Meanwhile, Fedora said the city should continue to work with its various unions to loosen work rules and reduce overtime costs.
Five of the six At Large candidates vying for two open City Council seats participated in Tuesday’s forum: Gareth Bates, Eric Edwardson, Linda Krug, Emily Larson and Chad Smith.
Krug said she considers the city “a pretty lean organization” but cutting the city’s budget probably will mean cutting additional jobs.
“I think we can continue to work on improving efficiency, and that there are ways we can think differently about what we do,” she said.
Larson said she has met with 125 community leaders and is committed to improving the efficiency of city operations. She takes particular encouragement from Duluth’s recent collaboration with St. Louis County on a joint law enforcement center.
“I think there are additional overlaps with the county, whether that’s in purchasing or roads or elsewhere,” she said
Larson also suggested there may be opportunities to look at broader regional support of city amenities, such as the library, that are used by city residents and people from neighboring communities alike.
Edwardson said he considers maintaining a strong library system a core city function, especially at a time when so many out-of-work people are relying on library computer labs for job searches.
“Without a library, we don’t have a future,” he said.
Smith said the city needs to face the hard truth.
“Cuts will need to happen. No one likes that, but that’s reality.”
Smith said he would focus on maintaining basic services if elected.
“The city’s core services and streets are where we need to go with our money,” he said, noting that city library hours have been reduced for a real financial reason.
Bates said some of Duluth’s amenities set it apart from other cities.
“If we’re going to attract business, we should have libraries and parks and recreational opportunities,” he said.
But Bates also said he did not support the idea of raising taxes during these difficult economic times.
Not participating in Tuesday’s forum because of prior commitments were At Large candidate Tim Riley and 4th District candidates Travis Silvers and Ryan Miles.