City Hall volunteering is strong and expanding

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2014 - 9:41 PM

Trying to make the budget go further and extend services, communities tap into willing unpaid workers, especially in Dakota County.

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Burnsville volunteer Willard Johnson, left, unloaded illegal signs from the back of inspector Ron Anderson’s vehicle. Johnson has been pitching in for 10 years.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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Ron Anderson employs four volunteers in Burnsville’s inspections division, residents who have included retired 3M executives, former teachers, retired airline employees and young adults trying to build their résumés.

The volunteers chiefly follow up on inspections performed by Anderson, a property maintenance enforcement officer, to make sure his orders are followed, saving him trips and time. “It frees me up to do other items, follow up on different cases,” Anderson said. “It lightens the load just a little bit and it’s important work. I know they feel a lot of pride in helping maintain the community.”

Cities around the metro area are reporting good results from volunteer programs they started during the recession as a way of getting a little extra work done without increasing spending. Last year, Burnsville’s cadre of volunteers — which totals 115 — put in 3,200 hours of unpaid work valued by the city at $90,000. At least 50 cities are using volunteers for filing, inspections, parks work and police assistance, among other things.

And more cities are following suit, including Apple Valley, West St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights and Rosemount, which are banding together to hire a volunteer coordinator. For other cities still on the fence, the Bush Foundation recently granted $52,000 for an effort to collect and pass on information about the best ways to bring volunteers to City Hall.

“We are hearing from cities that they are looking to broaden how volunteers are involved, and some are looking for the first time at starting volunteer programs,” said Mary Quirk, executive director of the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration. That group, working with the League of Minnesota Cities, will use the Bush grant over the next two years to spread the word about how to operate successful city volunteer programs.

It’s good timing, because “what volunteers are looking for is changing and right now volunteers really want to have an impact,” Quirk said. Volunteers like city work because they can see they are making a difference for their communities.

Indeed, many city volunteers stick with it for years. Willard Johnson, a 79-year-old Burnsville resident and former Northwest Airlines manager, has been pitching in on Friday afternoons at the inspections division for 10 years. “I was looking for something to do,” he said. “I enjoy being busy.”

He finds it rewarding because the city employees are nice to work with and because, he said, “the city is very clean, very nice. I think if we can maintain it, people will enjoy living here.”

Volunteer Nancy Sand, 68, works half a day per week scanning and filing documents and doing other computer work for the Burnsville city clerk. She formerly managed the government-relations program for the state teachers’ association in North Dakota, and after retiring to Burnsville, she contacted the city.

“I am familiar with government. I am using skills that I used all my life,” Sand said. “I feel valued every day because when I leave I am always thanked for being there.”

‘Community spirit’

Making volunteers feel appreciated is one key to a successful program, said Amber Jacobson, Burnsville’s volunteer coordinator. “Staff has realized the value of volunteers, so different departments are asking for assistance” — and that appreciation is communicated to the volunteers, Jacobson said.

Wayzata has made a community event out of a volunteer effort that now annually pulls in about 250 people of all ages, including families, to plant the city flower gardens in the spring, said City Manager Heidi Nelson. “The volunteer program was born out of some of the financial difficulties that all cities experienced in the 2008 to 2010 time frame,” she said. “What it has proved to be is a great way for people to be engaged and involved in the community and help support what the city does.”

People are continuing to volunteer now that the city’s budget crisis has passed because “they have created within themselves this community spirit and it’s something nobody wants to give up now,” said Lynn McCarthy, who volunteers as the city’s volunteer coordinator.

Hiring a joint coordinator

Inver Grove Heights, West St. Paul, Apple Valley and Rosemount needed no convincing of the benefits of a volunteer program, but they hesitated to take on the cost and responsibilities. The solution they chose was to jointly hire a coordinator who will work 24 hours a week.

West St. Paul would like to bring some volunteers in to help with code enforcement, said Assistant City Manager Sherrie Le. The community is older and houses and yards must be maintained, she said. “We just have one person and they get tons of calls. We could really use someone who is proud of the community who wants to help with that kind of thing.”

Inver Grove Heights could use volunteer help with a backlog of filing and documents waiting to be scanned for safekeeping, said City Administrator Joe Lynch. Landscaping, plant watering and buckthorn-removal efforts could also use extra hands.

“We are not trying to replace current workers,” Lynch said. “We are trying to augment city services.”

 

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287

 

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  • Volunteer Willard Johnson kept an eye out for illegal roadside signs as he rode around Burnsville. “I was looking for something to do,” the former Northwest Airlines manager said. “I enjoy being busy.”

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