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Randy's Ramblings: Hudson City Council has tough decisions to make

Hudson alderpersons are going to earn their $300-a-month salaries in the weeks ahead.

Decisions on a handful of issues are coming due that promise to leave one group or another upset.

"It's really ugly, folks," Mayor Alan Burchill warned the City Council members near the close of their Aug. 6 meeting, speaking about the 2013 city operating budget.

Under the state law that prohibits municipalities from raising their tax levies more than their percentage rise in equalized value due to new construction, Hudson will be limited to a projected $41,000 increase in tax revenue in 2013.

Meanwhile, employee health insurance premiums, wages and salaries, fuel prices and other expenses will tick upwards.

For this year's budget, the city had money to cushion the blow because of the new requirement that city employees pay half the cost of their pensions. Now that well has run dry and the only way to balance the budget is to cut expenses.

Mayor Burchill said he has asked city department heads to submit budget requests with a 3 percent reduction in spending from this year.

"And I don't know if that will be enough," he said.

The mayor said the council and city officials would have to be creative in finding ways to maintain city services at lower cost.

An immediate impact of the budget situation is Lt. Eric Atkinson's position with the Hudson Police Department will be left vacant for the time-being when he departs in mid-September to take over as chief of the Menomonie Police Department.

The City Council approved Chief Marty Jensen's request to re-title the position to captain at the Aug. 6 meeting, and had quite a debate over whether to require a four-year college degree for the job.

Burchill cast the tie-breaking vote to boost the educational requirement, siding with Alderpersons Rich Vanselow, Lori Bernard and John Hoggatt. Alderpersons Randy Morrissette II, Mary Yacoub and Kurt TeWinkel favored keeping the previous two-year degree qualification in the job description.

The council was in agreement on increasing the required job experience to seven years, up from the previous five years.

When Jensen was asked how soon the position might be filled, the police chief said that would depend on what his department's 2013 budget looks like.

A 3-percent reduction from the department's 2012 budget of roughly $2.8 million would mean about $84,750 less to work with in 2013. That's close to what the captain's compensation would be, not including benefits.

Jensen said he didn't want to bring on a captain if there isn't money for the position. The Police and Fire Commission does the hiring, he noted.

Casting a further pall over the financial picture, Burchill reported that a proposal to reduce the county library levy for the four municipalities served by the Hudson Area Joint Library had been pulled from the agenda of a recent St. Croix County Board meeting.

The municipalities, including the city, had hoped to persuade to the county board to reduce the levy so they could limit an increase in the taxes their residents pay for library services.

The municipalities haven't been subject to the county library levy over the past decade because it was assumed they were supporting the Hudson Area Library to the same level as the county tax. Early this year, it was discovered that they aren't. Now they have to either boost their support for the library or their property owners will be required to pay the county tax, too.

For the city, it means increasing funding to the local library by about $116,500, or having city property owners subject to a county library levy of roughly $179,500. Total library revenue could increase to $912,200 under the first option, or drop to $687,000 under the second.

Some alderpersons have already expressed a reluctance to increase city funding for the library. With the tight budget, I assume they'll be all the more opposed to it. That won't make library supporters happy.

Then there are the looming decisions on whether to rezone the St. Croix Meadows dog track to allow for construction of a new high school, and what to do about private St. Croix River boat docks on city parkland.

District voters approved purchasing the dog track for a school site by a 4,789 to 3,768 margin, or 56 percent to 44 percent, I'd like to remind city officials. And if my memory serves me right, the support for that use of the property was slightly higher in the city than in the surrounding municipalities.

I understand why a few First Street homeowners are unhappy about the prospect of losing their docks after having them for so many years. But the facts seem pretty clear. The property they're on belongs to the city.

I can understand the council wanting to accommodate the dock owners - but not by selling riverfront parkland. That would be a disservice to every other city resident, as well as visitors who use the scenic pathway along the river.

I don't envy City Council members for having to decide these matters. While people are often cynical about the motives of public officials (even local politicians), the ones I've observed over the years have all had a desire to do what's right.

Our opinions of what that is sometimes differ.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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