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Detroit Lakes residents protest summer program cuts

A small group of people voiced concerns Tuesday evening to about half of the Detroit Lakes City Council about the proposed cuts the city plans to make next week, cutting $250,000 from the 2009 budget.

Most of the public comment came when it was time to discuss dismissing lifeguards on the beach and a change in the summer recreation program.

The city sets a budget for the following year in mid-September each year. By the time the new year comes around though, "a lot of time we have to look at shortfalls," City Administrator Bob Louiseau told a couple dozen citizens making up the audience.

Because of an economic shortfall in interest, the city is losing about $35,000 in investments. Building permits have also dipped significantly, with the city preparing for another $35,000 loss. And proposed local government aid cuts would result in a $187,000 loss.

The city also lost $141,000 in LGA in December for 2008. It is bracing for another LGA cut of $418,000 in 2010 as well.

The city has already taken some action to implement cost-saving strategies. It has issued a hiring freeze and restrictions on travel, training costs and overtime.

Last Tuesday, the council also approved the use of money from impounded vehicles in drug enforcement activities to cover the costs of its Regional Drug Task Force membership fee; offering single only -- as opposed to family -- health insurance to the mayor, aldermen and public utility commission members; reduced the capital equipment budget by 15 percent; city-wide garbage and solid waste hauling.

Eliminating lifeguards at the city beach and swimming lessons were a sore subject for the audience members for various reasons.

The city pays $34,000 a summer for lifeguards to patrol the waters of Detroit Lake for 10 weeks. Lessons they provide bring in about $7,500, so the city figures it will save $27,500 after cutting the lessons and lifeguards.

But it's not all about costs, either. Alderman Bruce Imholte said Community Recreation Director Mark Greenig has fewer and fewer applicants, and qualified applicants, each year for lifeguarding.

Louiseau said when the city starting looking at ways to reduce costs, it looked at what is being duplicated elsewhere in town. Swimming lessons at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center was one of those places. So although lessons wouldn't be available through the city anymore, people can still get lessons elsewhere within the city.

Dennis Brent pointed out that now that people will swim through the DLCCC, they will have the burden of purchasing a membership. The beach will still be open, there just won't be lifeguards, Alderman Jim Anderson said.

Scott Mehlhaff said the beach needs the lifeguard service because if it's lost, it will add "another nail to the coffin to bring people to the area."

Bob Merrit backed up Mehlhaff's sentiment.

"I understand the process and difficulty of taking away lifeguards. To me, that beach represents the family-orientated recreation that Detroit Lakes has that may other (towns) don't," he said.

He added that if the city takes this service away, it will in turn take tourists away. Lifeguards likely help control mischief, such as bullying, at the beach also, he added.

"You're losing control of actions," he said, which will cause more work for law enforcement.

Marcus Lacher questioned the additional pressure on the pool at the DLCCC for the added lessons, but CEO Stu Omberg said they have talked with the high school and will be able to use the high school pool for lessons "so it wouldn't impact our pool."

As for the summer recreation portion of the cuts, "we're not trying to eliminate, just deliver it in a different manner," Louiseau explained.

"Generally speaking we're going to continue to provide those opportunities for kids," he continued. "We're not trying to eliminate them."

Instead of hiring summer staff for the rec program, the city would contract with the DLCCC to continue the summer programming, including baseball and softball.

Although there may be fees for the baseball program to make up for lost support from service organizations, summer rec will still be free.

"That level will not only be there but hopefully enhanced," Omberg said of the quality summer program.

The city is also proposing to eliminate warming house staff at outdoor skating rinks.

Kathy Carter said her sons play hockey for two to three hours a day at the outside rinks. They come home tired and hungry, and the activity keeps them off the street and out of trouble, she said. But unless kids are 16 and have a car to warm up in, they can't be outside some winter days for that many hours at a time with no place to warm up.

She suggested the city hire someone who is retired and looking for a part-time job to staff the warming house rather than a city employee that's being paid a much higher rate. She added that there might be trouble at the rink without any supervision as well.

Another talked about issue was the reduction of park maintenance part-time staff.

Harry Johnston asked if the city would consider senior volunteers to do some of the tasks to keep the city looking good.

"Absolutely we're going to look into it," Public Works Director Brad Green said. He added that likely they couldn't have volunteers mowing because of the commercial-sized mowers used for safety reasons, "but there are definitely opportunities," he added.

Tim Reiffenberger also expressed his concern on behalf of the Becker County Master Gardeners, who have taken over planting and caring for the hanging baskets around town in the summer. The city watered the baskets, but that may be cut back as well.

"I understand we're going to have to be creative" to come up with a solution, he said.

Paul Renner suggested the city look into contacting out caring for the summer up-keep of the city because it's been proven to be far cheaper than staffing for the city.

The other, less talked about or none at all, topics included a street lighting fee of $1 per month per utility customer; adjust code enforcement cost to 80 percent of building permit fee revenues; and an airport capital funding cut.

Mayor Matt Brenk asked audience members for any suggestions on other money saving ideas.

Mehlhaff suggested working together with the county for shared services, for example law enforcement.

"I think that's going to happen and be taken more seriously," Brenk said.

Joyce Newton suggested the city council members not receive health insurance as they are part-time and not city employees.

A finance committee meeting has been set for Tuesday, Feb. 24, at 4 p.m. to discuss what cuts will be made. The council will then meet at 5 p.m. to vote on the budget revision. Both meetings are open to the public.