Superior’s City Council got its first chance to discuss a study of most of its departments to determine if there are ways to become leaner and more efficient.
It won’t be the last discussion of the report.
Mayor Jim Paine and Council President Brent Fennessey planned to discuss the 31 recommendations made in the report to determine what committees would weigh the pros and cons before the Council decides whether to implement different strategies in the report.
Councilors had the opportunity to question Lisa Bergersen and Ed Henschel of RW Management Group about the findings and recommendations in the Organizational and Staffing Study final report.
Recommendations included some staff reductions, shifting among departments and additions to some departments, or simply filling positions that haven’t been filled.
“We made significant recommendations when it comes to the finance department,” Henschel said.
Among the suggestions was combining the finance director, assistant finance director and internal auditor into one position.
“I will be honest with you,” Henschel said. “This is the first city of this size that has any kind of internal audit function.” He said in a community of 75,000 where he served as city administrator, the finance director was expected to conduct internal audits.
The internal auditor position was created more than a decade ago after a series of embezzlement cases involving city staff stealing public funds came to light, the most egregious of which involved a former fire chief who went to prison after being convicted of stealing about $239,799. To reduce costs, the city has contracted for the work for several years and just renewed a three-year contract for those services.
One of the issues the organizational analysis didn’t look at is the staffing level of public works because of the city’s location on Lake Superior, Henschel said.
“We stayed away from that because of your geography, your snowfall in the winter time,” Henschel said. “We decided that we’re not experts in the environment and the weather area. We understand that.”
Among the more controversial issues was a suggestion in the report that the City Assessor’s Office was shirking its duties, and a proposed change to the city’s form of government.
City Assessor Brad Theien took issue with the report and the potential elimination of a position because of the department’s statutory requirements concerning property sales.
“We have to maintain, every day, all of those sales,” Theien said.
The department has been very studious on maintaining the city’s assessments and has been touted for having accurate assessment records, Theien said. Since 2005, the last time a revaluation was done, the average assessment ratio is 97%.
Properties assessed within 10% of their full value are considered in compliance, according to Wisconsin state law.
“We’ve been working our tails off to maintain,” Theien said. “Our whole goal is to maintain equity across assessments … we want everyone stepping on at the same rate.”
Theien also challenged an estimate on the cost of a full revaluation of the city. The cost estimate of $100,000 is low, he said because the estimated cost — about $80 per improved property — puts that cost at $725,000.
Bergersen said the group’s estimate was based on hiring temporary staff for the revaluation.
“I don’t think it was properly vetted,” Theien said. “I don’t think people understand what has to happen in the Assessor’s Office.”
Mayor Jim Paine challenged the findings on Superior’s budget process, which had left the city with a sizeable fund balance, with revenues exceeding expenses by more than $1 million. Paine said the budget process was revamped in 2018 to implement one of the recommendations of using the last three years actual expenses in determining budgets, a move that has the city on track of a 96% utilization rate this year, compared to a 90% utilization rate over the last decade.
Paine said the city is already benefitting from the report’s projected $200,000 in savings for an improved process.
However, it was a recommendation to reduce the role of mayor to a part-time position and hire a city administrator that really captured Paine’s attention.
“I have to call you out a little bit,” Paine said. “I mentioned to you that I have a master’s degree in advocacy and political leadership. I could have sworn I told you that the No. 1 rule is that you’re not allowed to use politics around me as a dirty word. I think you broke it with this recommendation, sir.”
Paine noted inaccuracies in the report concerning the number of cities Superior’s size that have full-time mayors. While the report identified Wisconsin six cities — Manitowoc, Muskego, Neenah, Stevens Point, Superior and Wisconsin Rapids — as having full-time mayors, Paine said the report neglected to include Cudahy, Greenfield, Marshfield and Watertown, which tilted the balance to a majority of smaller cities with full-time mayors.
He also challenged the validity that a professional administrator would make Superior more efficient. Citing a study from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh that focused on Wisconsin data about forms of government, Paine said the researchers tested hypotheses from previous research.
While the hypothesis on the tax rate being lower was partially substantiated, it showed that the mayor-council with an administrator form of government was “significantly higher” than tax rates for other forms of the governance, according to “Municipal Government Structure in Wisconsin: Does Form Matter?” The study found the opposite true when it came to financial condition measured by bond ratings; mayor-council and administrator performed worse than other forms of government.
“You recommend that we reduce the mayor to part time,” Paine said. “Obviously, I’ve got a personal stake in that.” He asked how many other cities have gone from a full-time to part-time mayors.
“I’d have to do some research; I don’t track that,” Henschel said.
“I can’t find any that has moved to a part-time mayor,” Paine said. “That’s, as far as I can tell, unprecedented. That’s never happened in the state of Wisconsin.”
Councilor Jenny Van Sickle said she was concerned the report was an effort to weaken the voices of elected officials.
“We need to take our time with this,” Fennessey said. “This isn’t something where we take this and adopt it next month. That’s why I’m glad we waited until we passed the budget and then took a look at this.”
After all, there are some issues that could make city government more efficient within the report, he said.
“One of the things that kind of got glossed over was some of the job sharing,” Fennessey said.
“I think we’re going to have to drill down further … we have to do some more work ourselves,” Councilor Jack Sweeney said. “Some of these may have consequences we don’t know about.”