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11th-hour motion slashes West Fargo's 2023 budget

Commissioner Mark Simmons required cuts to 2023 spending before voting to pass budget

West Fargo city hall
West Fargo City Hall and police station (Matt Von Pinnon/Forum)
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WEST FARGO — In an attempt to curb city spending, the West Fargo City Commission cut several items from the city budget before ultimately approving it on Monday, Oct. 3.

The city's budget hearing was extended from the commission's Sept. 19 meeting to Oct. 3 due to a notice hearing. On Monday, the commission again considered the 2023 budget as initially proposed.

City Administrator Tina Fisk said there were no changes to the previously proposed 2023 budget, which lowered the mill levy by less than 0.48 mills to a total of 72.21 mills.

An initial motion to pass the budget failed Monday, with Commissioners Mark Simmons and Roben Anderson voting against it, and Mayor Bernie Dardis and Commissioner Brad Olson voting in favor. Commissioner Mandy George was not in attendance.

Simmons then motioned to approve the budget with five spending cuts that included:

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  1. Not hiring an additional communications specialist for a savings of up to about $105,000.
  2. Reducing the marketing budget by $50,000, from $70,000 to $20,000.
  3. Cutting the communications department travel budget $4,500, from a proposed $9,500 to $5,000.
  4. Eliminating a $25,000 expense paid to the Dale Carnegie Institute for training programs in the human resources department
  5. Eliminating $25,000 for a consultant to conduct a payroll study by human resources.

"To me, the budget has to pass," Simmons said. "I will not allow these items to go in there."
The spending cuts amount to about $209,500 — nearly the equivalent to 1 mill in the 2023 general mill levy. One mill will be equal to $232,014 for 2023, and additional property taxes will generate about $1.6 million more for the city in 2023.

Simmons said with the additional cuts, the 2023 budget levy will reduce the general mill levy farther, by nearly 1.5 mills.

Olson asked Simmons why he wanted to cut a training program for staff.

Simmons said he supports training for staff, he does not support using the Dale Carnegie Institute any longer. He said the commission initially approved the training for its department heads, but now the training is leading to additional spending by the city because it is paying some employees overtime while they are enrolled in the Dale Carnegie program.

Human Resources Director Jenna Wilm said she could not speak to overtime charges, but anyone who supervises staff as part of their position with the city is allowed to take the training.

Over the past roughly 18 months, a number of department heads, the majority of whom were relatively new to West Fargo, have left their positions, including the economic development director, assistant city administrator, city engineer, planning director and most recently, the finance director.

Dardis said while the discussion was heated, it was needed.

"This discussion is positive despite the tension up here," Dardis said. "It shows a high regard for what we are doing for the taxpayer. Commissioner Simmons was very troubled by some of the line items."

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Earlier in the evening, Dardis asked Fisk and new city Finance Director Judy Afdahl to examine the city's reserve funds and special fund reserves for potential use, especially as the city is preparing to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax in November, the proceeds of which will be used for public safety.

Simmons said he proposed cuts to the communications travel budget because it increased from $2,850 in 2022 to the proposed $9,000 in 2023. He said the city has already completed numerous payroll studies, and "anyone can pick up the phone and call any city in North Dakota and ask what their payroll is," calling a consultant cost unnecessary.

The city's budget must be finalized by Oct. 10 and registered with Cass County at that time. Fisk said if the commission did not pass a budget Monday, the city's mill levy would simply stay the same as it was in 2022. She said Monday she was surprised by Simmons' proposal.

"I was not told to do that (make those cuts), and there have been months of time for people to talk about it, so I just think the staff was blindsided," she said. "If you had asked as the commission (as a whole) to do it, I would do it."

Simmons said commissioners including himself and George had individually asked Fisk to consider the cuts, and Dardis mentioned each commissioner had concerns about specific spending items.

"This is nothing new," Simmons said. "These line items I've brought up, I've talked about forever and ever. This is nothing new at all. It's just that nothing was ever done. Nothing was ever done. I think we as commissioners have to say this is it, we're not just going to go with the flow. We are allowed to make changes. ... We are supposed to — we're the elected officials here."

The first proposed budget included hiring an additional survey manager and engineering technician, a communications coordinator, a property appraiser in assessing, two more staff members for the street department and five patrol officers, one administrative assistant and a body camera records specialist for the police department.

Many of the departments had increases in their budgets. The administration department budget will increase by $188,990; the assessor budget will increase by $91,995; human resources will increase $105,999; information technology is going up more than $200,000; the planning department is increasing by more than $306,000; engineering will increase by more than $325,000; and the communications department budget will increase by $117,879. The police department will increase its budget by more than $2 million in 2023.

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Commissioners passed the budget with the cuts proposed by Simmons by a 3-1 vote, with Olson dissenting.

Fisk left the meeting shortly after the vote, and she was not present to give the City Administrator's Reporter after the budget discussion.

READ MORE FROM WEST FARGO EDITOR WENDY REUER

Readers can reach West Fargo editor Wendy Reuer at wreuer@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5530 . Follow her on Twitter @ForumWendy .

As the West Fargo editor, Wendy Reuer covers all things West Fargo for The Forum and oversees the production of the weekly Pioneer.
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