Duluth Council approves use of American Rescue funds to avoid future budget cuts

At Monday night’s Duluth City Council meeting, budget cuts were on the agenda. Specifically, impacts to the City’s Police and Fire Departments.

In December 2022, Councilors were presented with an 8.9% property tax levy. The Council approved a 7.9% levy, equating to nearly $383,000 needed in cuts across all City departments. To make up that 1%, the Council made recommendations to the Mayor’s office about where overall cuts to City departments should be made. A majority of those cuts were made to the Duluth Police and Fire Departments.

Now several months into the fiscal year, Mayor Emily Larson made a proposal to the Council to use American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding to restore those public safety cuts. This means property tax payers will still see a 7.9% increase, while ARP funds will cover the 1%.

“In December, this Council, after much debate, approved an 8-1 of a $382,950 reduction in expenses to reach our goal of a 1% tax decrease,” explained Council Vice President Roz Randorf, who voted against the amendment. “We identified areas we wanted to see reduction in. We talked a lot about open positions, at the time I think there was about 22 of them. We made it clear we didn’t want the cuts in Fire. I’ll repeat that, we didn’t want the cuts in Fire. We didn’t want the cuts in Police.”

Vice President Randorf went on to explain the timeline of the last four months, saying the Council requested a breakdown from the Mayor’s office in February, of where the budget cuts were applied.

“On April 18th, after that, four months later into the year, an email was sent to all Council on the new ordinance, overturning an 8-1 decision in December,” said Randorf Monday night. “Now, that was with no communication to the Finance Committee, no updates, no concerns, just an email.”

Randorf explained the conversations the Council had about open positions within the City of Duluth.

“In December, we talked at great lengths about those open positions. Because that’s the first place you would look when you’re cutting, because then people don’t have to leave. You have open positions, you either defer those, hold them, or cut them. And we had open positions all across the departments. And when I pull the recent report in January, other than the one person we hired full time in Fire and one in Police, there was 28 full time hires since January 1. 26 of those came from the other departments. So we continued to hire,” said Randorf.

Councilor At Large Arik Forsman was the only other member to offer an opinion, saying he would vote opposite Vice President Randorf but echoes her concerns.

“If we’re going to make changes, we should do them more proactively than what happened last year,” shared Forsman. “An email from City administration sent to media asking us to change our budget four months after the fact is also not a best practice.”

Forsman said he wants to see the funding to Police and Fire restored, but said there are too many other services the City offers that we can’t have all of our focus and funding on public safety.

“Cutting our way to greatness to preserve public safety is not sustainable financially. We have to grow our revenues, which I am interested in talking more with this Council about and I think there are ways we can do that by not impacting taxpayers,” Forsman explained. “But we also have to recognize that there are likely hard decisions in the future. And rolling back 1% of a larger increase four months after the fact is likely small potatoes, compared to what we might have to do in the future.”

Councilor Forsman, along with seven other members, voted to use ARP funding to restore the 1%, saying he viewed it as a compromise.

“If I were sticking around again and this were to come forward in the future, I would be an absolute no on that one,” said Forsman.