Funds for Baxter’s parks maintenance, expectation for quality and level of service are all combined as officials consider the final budget this fall.

The Parks Maintenance Department requested a budget increase of 27.9% for 2021 compared to 2020. The proposed budget presented to the council provided for a 12.1% increase.

Items removed to account for the change included an additional maintenance position for $75,900; reduced funds for repairs/maintenance to structures from the requested $12,800 to $12,000; reduced a request for new vehicles and equipment from $93,900 to $24,200; removed a $9,400 aerator; removed a $60,000 Bobcat and added $15,000 to contingency fund to allow for contracted services if needed.

“It’s jumping out at me as the single biggest jump two years in a row now,” said council member Zach Tabatt of the parks’ budget. “I just didn’t know if we needed to have a deeper discussion of are we hitting the right level of service there? Are we starving this department that needs 27.9% in the second year and I think last year it was up in the near 20 range.”

Tabatt said all the other department budgets seem to be in line with inflation give or take, but the parks maintenance budget stands out as being a little different. Tabatt said he didn’t know if that was part of a future discussion.

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To provide context, for the 2020 budget, City Administrator Brad Chapulis said there were two full-time equivalent positions requested for parks maintenance. One was funded and hired in late May/early June and instead of funding a second full position, those equivalent funds were put toward contracted services. Chapulis said they looked at maintaining what they have now since the position was there for just part of the year and waiting to have a full year with the additional parks maintenance position first.

Chapulis said they do continue to have discussions on ways to be more efficient, making changes without affecting the quality of services. With the additional staff, Chapulis said half a year wasn’t a sufficient time to determine if they were suffocating or putting too much demand on the department.

“I think we need to observe for a full year as to the progress that is being made and make adjustments in that regard,” Chapulis said, adding it is duly noted reliance on outside sources such as Sentence to Serve work hours, where supervised nonviolent offenders in corrections were able to work on community projects, has taken a hit.

Additional hours were identified for seasonal labor, Chapulis said, adding the expectation for the level of services is a conversation that should continue between staff and the council. Trevor Walter, public works director, said the level of service has been cut a lot in the last 18 months. Walter cited cutbacks to mowing and work on trails and increase in work levels in other areas such as roundabouts.

“We have cut the level of service on a lot of fronts,” Walter said.

Council member Todd Holman said when looking at the amount of trail added by the new elementary school, the city will see a lot of people using it year-round as well as the new trail on the north side of Highway 210. Holman said his concern is if all stays the same what will drop off, particularly in higher use corridors.

As for the Sentence to Serve program, Walter said it is basically nonexistent in Baxter now, with a cut of 650 hours of service. It was going away before the coronavirus pandemic and Walter said it is expected those hours will be gone entirely going forward.

“We have lost hours we always banked on,” Walter said, noting at one time they were getting 3,000 to 4,000 hours a year.

Council member Connie Lyscio also noted there is growing demand for a dog park.

The city of Baxter was set to submit the preliminary levy to Crow Wing County prior to the Sept. 30 deadline, noting the levy can be reduced but not increased at this point. Individual tax notices will be sent to property owners in November. The council has the ability to fine-tune the budget before it is adopted in December.

Next on the list of meetings is a 6 p.m. Nov. 11 council work session, followed by a 5:30 p.m. budget work session if needed. By Nov. 25, a final budget document is expected to be available for the city council, prior to a meeting aimed at getting public input.

The informational meeting to go over the information and allow for that public feedback is set at 6 p.m. Nov. 30. The 2021 final property tax levy and budget is scheduled to be adopted at the Dec. 1, regular council meeting.

In the budget, $20,000 was added in a collector street fund for professional services related to a railroad crossing study. A staff report to the city council as part of the Sept. 22 budget discussions noted that adjustment in the capital project fund could be made without a need to adjust the levy for 2021. The city is looking at a future silent crossing option where the train horn would not sound at crossings in Baxter.

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchBizBuzz.