Austin City Council looks ahead at retreat

Published 10:43 am Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Austin City Council discussed future projects, finances and goals for 2016 at the second night of its annual retreat Monday.

The City Council also heard from departments within the city such as the fire department, parks and recreation and public works.

City website and social media

City Clerk Ann Kasel told the City Council that they’re seeing signs that an updated website and video blogs both started in 2015 are seeing good results in helping the city reach out to the public as the city’s website received more than 45,000 hits in 2015.

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An updated website and social media interaction was one of the city’s 2015 goals, and the city debuted a new website last January.

Each department receives monthly reminders to review their content on the website, Kasel said.

“I think we have a really good website now,” Kasel said. “It’s just to keep it updated.”

She also reported their likes on Facebook increased from 734 to 1,406, and the city posted 220 Facebook updates in a year.

Kasel said people are liking the posts, sharing them and responding to them. They also receive many questions through Facebook messages. A lot of people liked posts about snow emergencies, grass mowing, shoveling, throwback Thursdays and city news. One post with a police officer even reached more than 11,000 people.

“It’s a great way to communicate with citizens because it is a form of media so widely used,” Kasel said.

The video blogs such as city council recaps and various department topics are also going well, with more than 10,000 people viewing the blogs for 30 seconds or more. Kasel added everything was also converted to their YouTube channel, which has all of their meetings and all of the blogs.

“People have called in and said they liked them,” Kasel said.

Economic Development

The city is working with the Development Corporation of Austin on economic development initiatives to help attract businesses.

“I think it’s more helpful to have DCA help lead the charge,” City Administrator Craig Clark said.

Mayor Tom Stiehm also created an ad hoc housing committee to address a community housing shortage. City leaders are expected to come forward later this month with specific recommendations.

“The challenges for housing are pretty substantial,” Clark said. “It’s at all levels and all incomes.”

DCA Executive Director John Garry said it helps to have a slight business edge. He also mentioned that some online resources have been a good start because it’s the place where people go to find out information about the community. A site selector can look at the potential site and city and also advise them as to what would entice private developers to their area.

In 2016, the city plans to continue work on an incentive and marketing package and also talk with Austin Utilities about creating an economic incentive pool.

Parks and Rec

At last year’s retreat, the board talked about making parks in Austin a destination and Parks and Rec Director Kim Underwood said she would like to continue that because, “it takes a long time for that to happen.”

“A little bit of money at a time isn’t going to make a destination park overnight,” Underwood said.

Underwood suggested the idea of an obstacle course for older kids and possibly even parents. She added Rotary Park would make a nice location for it.

“It’s a neat area to start to develop,” Underwood said. Though obstacle courses tend to be more expensive, Underwood said there is $100,000 for 2017, and Council member Judy Enright suggested asking the Rotary Club for help.

Underwood also reported they did not receive a forestry grant. The amount of money they wanted was doubled and 25 people applied, but they will apply again for the grant.

The department is also building shelters at the dog park area and outside of the pool fence.

Another suggestion was to create a mini-golf course and splash pads in a park area. Underwood said the mini-golf course would work if someone else would run it; however, splash pads use a lot of water.

Austin Fire Department

Austin Fire Chief Jim McCoy updated council members on a busy year that saw Austin’s first two fire deaths in about a decade — one on Christmas and one on Thanksgiving.

“I’d like to see that number go back down to zero,” McCoy said.

McCoy also reported a few fires in town were started by children, adding the city’s youth fire prevention program had limited success on the newest participants, though parents were excited about it.

McCoy said cooking, cooking incidents and vehicle fires were the leading fires in Austin. He said they aren’t big fires, but they always respond to them.

The department also plans to hold a fire safety event at Twin Towers.

Other projects for the fire department included remodeling their fire station.

“Fixing the station was huge. It was time-consuming, trying,” McCoy said. “It’s nice when it rains and the water doesn’t come in or on windy days the wind isn’t whistling through the kitchen.”

He also said their new truck, tanker 304, is getting a bit of use lately and it’s a wonderful truck. They will next look at replacing truck 306, along with potential upgrades to the kitchen at the fire house.

McCoy’s goal for 2016 is to complete 300 fire inspections. The department did not quite meet its 2015 goal for inspections, he said.

The department has about 10 full-time and 25 part-time workers. He said the calls increased in 2014, but losses from building fires were significantly lower in 2015 than 2014.

“That’s a good thing,” McCoy said.

McCoy reported one firefighter retired after 23 years of service and another resigned for personal reasons, while the department hired four firefighters.

However, McCoy said it can be hard when the station is down two people and still faces time-consuming activities such as paperwork have to be completed at the station. Three people currently do inspections, one for each shift.

McCoy said he would like to transition a part-time administrator into full-time.

Last year, the department completed a live house burn in Austin and two with Rose Creek, a mutual aid effort. Parks and Rec has a house for them to burn this year. The house burns help with training new firefighters.

“We’ve been trying to build on our training and incorporate things that we’ve already learned into more drills,” McCoy said. “We’ve been trying to transition over to drilling, putting multiple things together so we can move forward.”

The department has also updated some of its equipment. It acquired two new floor gas monitors and a hydrogen-cyanide detector for use after fires. They also had to throw away about 40 sections of fire hose because it was no longer compliant with standards and some of it was from the 1970s.

They also have a grant in review for new air packs, which have a life of about 15 years, and they are at a high priority for that grant, McCoy said. The cost for this new equipment will be about $18,500, if they get the grant, about $20,000, which would cover new air packs that are up to the new standard.

Over the next three years, they will be looking at almost $26,000 worth of bottles that need to be replaced.

“I just think it makes financial sense to be good for another 15 years,” McCoy said.

McCoy also suggested offering a citizen CPR academy a few times a year. Ideally, the academy would be free. If there is a cost, it would be kept to a minimum, he said. He also would ask the Hormel Foundation to provide the supplies, such as the dummies and masks.

Riverland Community College does offer the classes, Enright mentioned, but sometimes they don’t run if there aren’t enough in the class.

“Early CPR saves lives,” McCoy said. “Not everyone can have a defibrillator in their home.”

A fourth-grader from Austin Public Schools won the state fire prevention poster contest. McCoy said they plant to surprise the student at school and make a presentation at council. The poster was also featured on the cover of Fire Chief Magazine.

Public Works

Public Works Director Steven Lang said the local option sales tax for flood mitigation started in 2007 can continue for a maximum of 20 years or until the projects are complete.

From 2007-2015, Lang said there was $24 million in expenses.

There is currently $70,000 in the local option sales tax budget. If there is money left over after the projects are completed, it will go into the general fund. Projects that were identified in the original scope of work and what came up. The local option sales tax is very dependent upon Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and state Legislature grants. They have a good relationship with their DNR contact, Lang said.

Lang said if they start the North Main project before July 2017, they will meet their agreement. The project was originally supposed to start by July 2016, but they were granted an extension.

Another key topic was flood berms. Lang said Lions Park would need a berm and also the berms by the wastewater treatment plant are not certified nor as structurally sound as the ones recently built. They were built during the emergency.

“We need to protect our valuable infrastructure,” Lang said.

Wildwood Park also needs a berm. Lang said some people turned down the flood mitigation projects because they didn’t think their house would be flooded, so that led to surplus money in the grant. Lang is working with the DNR to transfer the money to other projects in Austin such as Turtle Creek.


Finance Tom Dankert reported the last audit was good and showed no significant findings and no non-compliances were found. The audit for 2015 will start next week.

The homeownership bond had a record year for loans made, in fact, it was such a good year for that program that they almost ran out of cash, Dankert said. The program helps people put a down payment on a home.

Dankert said he anticipated more involvement in Vision 2020 projects this year.

One big challenge of 2015 was funding the Hormel Institute expansion. The city received $13.5 million from the Hormel Foundation and the state, which is on a reimbursement basis. That caused them to keep a short-term liquid cash to pay the bills, Dankert said.

A big achievement was closing out the Oak Park Mall deal.

Goals for 2016 include keeping an eye on the market for investments. He added they had just over 100 percent in revenue and 93 percent in expenditures.

Human Resources

The city saw five retirements and 11 new full-time employees in 2015, according to Human Resources Director Tricia Wiechmann.

They also bid out their health insurance provider, which resulted in a change in their third-party administrator. The city has partnered with Mayo Clinic since 2002.

“It was a big change for us, but we felt it was necessary,” Wiechmann said. “Especially with the claims themselves.”

The claims continued to rise and they also had to keep administration costs down, she said.

Another topic was safety meetings for employees. Wiechmann said workman compensation claims continue to rise, but are mostly driven by one or two large claims.

Goals for 2016 include continuing labor negotiations with police officers, updating policies, job descriptions and other items as necessary.

At the end of 2016, there will be six other labor agreements that will expire and Wiechmann expects them to start discussing that next fall so they are ready for 2017.