City CAO's View: In a changed world, utilizing all of Duluth just isn't possible
In a time of national emergency, that residents and the public have not noticed substantial changes to most city operations is a credit to the creative, hard-working staff of the city of Duluth. Their excellent work, energy, and good-humored adaptation in a time of crisis have allowed for continued city services in all departments.
But that adaptation also comes with a focus on the community’s safety, which does mean changes to the way the city provides services. For example, traditional city-supported recreational activities must be reconfigured to prevent disease transmission, and costs must be reduced to preserve funding for essential services.
The changes we are making to city operations are a result of an unprecedented crisis that is, at once, the worst public health emergency since the 1918 flu outbreak and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. At the city of Duluth, the economic collapse threatens to decrease 2020 revenues by up to $25 million, enough to jeopardize the city’s ability to sustain essential services.
Acting under state and local emergency orders, city leaders are undertaking a comprehensive review of all city operations. Most visibly, one by one, the city has been adapting recreational activities that can continue to operate safely, ceasing or restricting those activities that cannot be adapted, and cutting costs wherever we can.
This process has produced an ongoing series of painful but necessary decisions that impose some level of sacrifice and disappointment for all Duluthians. Attractions like Spirit Mountain and the Lake Superior Zoo remain closed with the uncertain hope that they may reopen later this summer. Children throughout the city are indefinitely prohibited from using public playgrounds. Athletic fields have not been opened for spring sports leagues. Additional parks-related restrictions and postponements will almost certainly be announced in the coming weeks. All Duluthians are impacted, but our safety as a community must come first.
Decisions made to date include significant cost-cutting. The city has withheld portions of budgeted tourism-tax subsidies for our tourism-tax partners and notified them that they may not receive the remainder of their allocations. The city has indefinitely postponed plans to hire its usual seasonal park maintenance workforce, a decision that will significantly reduce the city’s capacity to maintain ballfields, courts, gardens, trails, and parks throughout the summer.
This past week, the city sent temporary layoff notices to nearly 50 employees, including one third of the hard-working employees of the city’s Property, Parks, and Libraries Department. These dedicated public servants are an enormous loss for the city of Duluth and the community. As a result of a hiring freeze and layoffs, the city currently has more than 100 positions empty as we prepare for an uncertain financial future.
For some vocal groups, the impact of these changes are heard: for example the golf community, which will not be able to utilize the Lester Park Golf Course this year. As the city of Duluth’s entire leadership team works to minimize layoffs and lessen impacts to essential services during the pandemic, operating two golf courses that are not financially independent is not feasible. While we could have achieved some of the same cost savings by only opening Lester this year and leaving Enger closed, we did not do so for a number of reasons, including greater accessibility of the centrally located Enger facility and the City Council designation of Enger Park as our flagship golf course.
But we also work to provide services to residents and community members who are not always able to make their voices heard. All Duluthians have the right to expect to benefit from city recreation opportunities. Throughout the city, Duluthians at all income levels are dealing with the reality that their libraries are not open and available as usual, digital services and curbside pickup aside. Little League parents are comforting children disappointed that the season for which they were practicing and preparing for may not happen. Youth tennis participants cannot practice because the nets are not in place.
In the end, the world has changed and so must our expectations. Just like our business community, government organizations are adapting and learning new ways of service delivery in a changed world. We strive to offer equitable services to all Duluthians, even in a crisis, and look forward to a day when we can again fully utilize all of Duluth.
Noah Schuchman is the city of Duluth’s chief administrative officer. He wrote this for the News Tribune.