Four-phase plan involving 15 current positions goes to council Monday
A significant shake up of the city of Forest Lake’s staff is in the works. The proposed four-phase reorganization involves the elimination of 15 positions and the creation of 15 others.
City Administrator Aaron Parrish, who is driving the plan, in recent weeks brought it before staff and the city’s finance and personnel committees. It is set to go before the City Council on Monday.
“We do definitely acknowledge that this can create some concern,” Parrish said in an interview he and Mayor Chris Johnson had with the Times last week. “It has created some uncertainty on the part of our staff members. We certainly don’t want to do that, but we also have to balance the needs to advance the city as an organization and provide that right alignment with our staffing structure. We do appreciate what the people on our team do and have appreciated the professionalism that we’ve seen as we’ve gone through the process.”
Three primary factors are behind the plan, which would affect nearly half of the city’s staff other than police officers and firefighters.
First and foremost are recent changes in the Fire Department’s staffing that have led to undesirable levels of response to some recent calls. A few of the department’s regular responders are no longer available during the day. Of firefighters available during that shift, a disproportionate amount are assigned to the fire station in Columbus, which accounts for only 20 percent of calls.
“Cities just don’t have people that are in town working that can just leave their job and respond to fires like they used to be able to,” Mayor Johnson said. “Other cities have gone to actually hiring full-time firefighters to work during the day.”
The city would not go to that length, as the Forest Lake Fire Department does not respond to medical calls. Rather, the reorganization plan calls for the creation of five split-duty positions. The workers would clock most of their hours performing custodial and building inspection and maintenance duties, but would be available as soon as calls come in.
“Their primary responsibility of course is in those (other) areas, but their priority responsibility would be firefighting,” said Parrish, who pointed to the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department as a working example of such a system.
The current positions of building official, building inspector, building secretary/assistant, building maintenance supervisor and custodian would be eliminated. The building official position is currently vacant following a retirement.
A 2013 update to the strategic plan document cites a current “small challenge” in issuing building permits in a timely manner. The volume of these duties, like planning applications, varies. Parrish said the city monitors the workflow and responds by issuing overtime or contracting for services. Also, Johnson expects the work of the city’s Technology Advisory Committee to produce efficiencies within these areas.
These changes, representing the first phase of the restructure, would increase the 2014 budget by an estimated $9,685. The City Council will be asked to approve Phase I on Monday.
The second factor behind the proposed changes is a desire to update the organizational chart to better reflect current and future services.
“Really, the goal and intent is to align our staffing structure and the positions that we have in the city of Forest Lake with the community needs, with our best ability to provide services that people have come to expect, to meet public safety needs, and then ultimately to align that staffing structure with the goals and objectives in our strategic plan,” Parrish said.
Implementation of the 2012-2015 Strategic Plan – the city’s first document to combine input from the community, staff and council – has been a priority since Parrish began his duties in 2011 and Johnson took office that same year. It is about 80-90 percent done, they said.
“To me, that plan was one that a ton of work went into and it reflects largely what the community told us, and it also reflects ideas administrators and council members brought to it,” Johnson said. “We put that into place and it was kind of the beginning point of really starting to execute on a game plan. It isn’t something that was just put on the shelf. It really was taken seriously.”
The strategic plan calls for broad evaluation of staffing structure but also emphasizes parks and trails, economic development and public safety. Each of those areas would be bolstered under the proposal.
A third primary benefit of the plan, Parrish said, is the financial impact. The changes would bring about an annual net cost savings of approximately $155,000.
The proposal’s second phase would save the most money: $66,232. Estimated for implementation in the first half of 2014, it entails a makeover in the Community Development department. Gone would be the current positions of community development director, city planner and planning department secretary/assistant. The half-time park director position would also be eliminated in this phase.
The cuts would be counteracted with the hiring of an economic development coordinator, zoning administrator, and full-time park and trial coordinator. At this time, the Police Department would also benefit from the creation of a community service officer program.
“I think the changes most profoundly reflect … the desire to be more proactive in attracting development to Forest Lake, so you have an economic development coordinator position that would really take the lead initiative,” Parrish said. “Right now, our community development function is primarily focused on planning efforts, and this represents a shift into that economic development area.”
The new zoning administrator would handle current planning duties such as variances and site plan reviews.
Johnson said there already are enough parks duties to justify a full-time position, and he expects that workload to increase. The city already pays full-time benefits for the part-time position, he noted.
Parrish said the city wants to be proactive in looking for “potential resources to implement.” He also noted the trail function of the new job description will come into play with the double-roundabout planned at highways 61 and 97 in 2016.
“We want to have an increased emphasis in park planning, capital improvement,” he said. “We just want to be able to execute more aggressively in that area and certainly build on the commitment we have to the events that are currently focused on.”
The community service officer program would involve a setup similar to that of a paid internship, where workers with interest in law enforcement could get their feet wet while freeing the department’s licensed peace officers from routine duties like code enforcement.
“It is a model that allows police to focus on higher-level activities,” Parrish said. “They do provide support and are also able to provide an additional set of eyes and ears.”
The city may incorporate animal control duties into the program rather than contracting for those services.
Phase III would affect the Public Works Department and produce an estimated cost savings of $57,158. The public works director, street lead worker and utility lead worker positions would be cut. The city would add the positions of public works superintendent, street maintenance, and water and sewer maintenance. An additional savings estimated at $35,247 would come when factoring in evening and weekend on-call pay.
Phase IV calls for the elimination of three specific office positions in the Police Department and replaces them with three general support positions. The salary of the current senior administrative secretary position would be trimmed by $5,954 to match the other two positions.
No specific timeline has been set for the last two phases, but they are expected to impact the 2015 budget rather than next year’s.
The council will need to vote on each phase separately, and the city must meet with bargaining units about the impact of the changes.
“The reason we broke it out into phases is to manage the implementation,” Parrish said.
Current employees will likely be candidates for many of the proposed positions, and their institutional knowledge will be weighed into hiring decisions, Parrish said.
“Certainly, the overall reorganization concept has significant implications for how we’re going to provide city services and what staff people are in place to do that,” he said. “Ultimately, we have to go through a process of who’s going to fit where as we go through and identify what people’s interests are in pursuing certain positions.”
Given that the estimated cost savings reflect only about 2 percent of the city’s cost for wages and benefits, Parrish and Johnson emphasized that the restructuring is tied mainly to a redistribution of priorities.
“I do think that it’s healthy for organizations to evaluate themselves on occasion. It happens regularly in the private industry,” Johnson said. “It’s not disrespectful to all the effort that has been made up to this point by the employees that are impacted, and we continue to appreciate everything that they are doing. It’s not personal. It’s evaluating the organization and positioning it as optimally as possible for the future.”
Johnson added that the timeliness of other hot-button issues, like the approval of the Forest Lake City Center, did not give him pause when presented with this proposal.
“I think part of my job is to lead the city into the future, and I think that what we’ve done (with this plan) is a difficult thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
“I didn’t run for mayor to just preside. I ran for mayor to move the city in a direction that I thought it should go. I think the fact that this is not the only change I’ve made, but I’ve made a number of big changes, is just reflective of why I ran.”