One of Chris Soderlind’s favorite memories from last summer was handing out freshly roasted and buttered ears of corn to hundreds of his Forest Lake neighbors.
He was looking forward to doing it again this year, too. But now, in the aftermath of some city belt-tightening, he wonders what’s in store for events such as Forest Lake’s popular Arts in the Park concert series and the park board’s season-ending corn feed.
“If they ask me to volunteer to do it, I probably would,” Soderlind said of this year’s corn feed. “I’m willing to help out because I do love this city. But there’s got to be a coordinator for all of that.”
The city is looking for a parks director after Nicole Schossow resigned from that position earlier this month when the City Council cut her position to half-time in this year’s budget.
In other reductions, which totaled more than $500,000, the city laid off its only fire inspector. Overall, the budget moves will save the average Forest Lake homeowner about $58 annually in property taxes, according to the city. This year’s total city levy is $8.35 million.
At one point in November, Council Member Ben Winnick, frustrated by the city’s desire to contribute money to build a new YMCA and also, a city office complex, asked city staff to recommend $1 million in cuts. He said last week that he did so as “an exercise to see what city staff could examine and really come back with a more efficient form of government.”
He added that he was “impressed that they did what they did” and that the city could “cut back where we could.”
Schossow, addressing council members on Jan. 12, said she found “unacceptable” their offer to consider restoring her job to full time if she raised $80,000 in grants and contributions over the next six months.
The budget move also prompted Soderlind to leave his post on the park board at the end of 2014. Although park board members worked with Schossow to develop a plan to improve city parks, Soderlind said he expected to have little to do during the last two years of his term without a coordinator on board.
Taking a step to address the vacancy, council members voted on Jan. 12 to hire a part-time park and recreation coordinator.
Newly sworn-in Mayor Stev Stegner dismissed City Administrator Aaron Parrish’s other proposed option, under which Parrish and other city staff would have taken on some of the park director’s wide-ranging responsibilities. The city has some two dozen parks and, as Parrish noted, collaborates with other groups on events such as Lake Fest, a weeklong series of community events that takes place each spring.
“Probably one of the bigger, more visible things that the public is aware of is the position takes the lead on coordinating our Arts in the Park and farmers market activities on Tuesday evenings in Lakeside Park,” Parrish said.
Fire inspector layoff
Meanwhile, laying off the city’s fire inspector concerns Fire Chief Gary Sigfrinius. One city building official has some fire inspection background and may be able to respond to complaints and do building inspections.
“For the most part, the fire inspection program in Forest Lake no longer exists,” Sigfrinius said. “I would think that when you went into a public place in Forest Lake, you should feel relatively comfortable that the exits are, in fact, clear enough for you to exit. I can no longer feel comfortable that that is true.”
The fire inspector also oversaw planning for firefighters, Sigfrinius said. That involved taking note of the size and layout of buildings, potential hazards and locations of sprinklers and alarm panels and briefing firefighters on those findings and recording them in the department’s planning book.
“We’re the only city of our size in the metro area that I can find that doesn’t have a fire inspector,” said Sigfrinius, who is retiring at the end of January. “Where does our wisdom come from that we’re the only city of our size that doesn’t have one? Are we somehow smarter than every city of our size? I don’t think so.”
Former Mayor Chris Johnson, who did not seek re-election, expressed his concerns at December’s council meeting.
“This is a terrible decision, to eliminate our only fire inspector,” Johnson said. “For a city of 19,000 people, with the amount of commercial buildings, including apartments and multifamily, it’s just ludicrous to me that we would go this route. … I think it’s wrong.”
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.