Duluth Council, Mayor’s Administration Discuss Budget Shortfall, Layoffs

City Council shared their thoughts and questions while the Mayor and her team outlined plans.

DULUTH, Minn.- Mayor Emily Larson made a rare appearance at Duluth’s virtual City Council meeting to give councilors a detailed outline, and uncertain look towards a grim future after she announced the city’s budget shortfall–which was unveiled to now be about $20.7-$38.2 million.

According to city officials, due to the city’s “strong mayor system,” Larson can make any decisions she feels necessary to save money, including cuts to staffing.

This means while the council sees and hears all the public’s thoughts and concerns about the layoffs, they have no real say in all of this.

However, Mayor Larson said she still wanted to hear from the councilors and discuss, while making these tough calls.

“It’s really hard to embrace the fact that there are no good choices,” 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress said.

The breakdown of cuts right now: 49 full-time and roughly 40 seasonal employees have been laid off, and 18-20 positions have gone unfilled during a hiring freeze.

Throughout the Mayor and her team’s presentation on the budget shortfall, councilors had questions about how the city would get through this in the long term.

“More with less,” said Councilor-at-Large Derek Medved, “can we do more with less.”

“I think now’s the time to put that to action. Is there things we can do if worse comes to worst, of sort of operating with a skeleton crew?” he said. “Can we really look and evaluate where we would cut if it came to that point, of really the point of no return?”

“We will make every decision we need to make to keep this city moving forward,” the Mayor replied. Though she explained that determining what positions are “essential” is so subjective, it ultimately comes down to a select few administrators.

“Somebody might think a golf course is essential to them. Somebody might feel that the parking meter assistant is essential to them, or the library technician is essential to them. And so part of it is discerning, as a group we will need to discern what we find essential,” she said.

Larson and Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman said they are looking into cutting down staff and running a skeleton crew, but that could have “catastrophic” effects on city services.

Meanwhile Councilor Renee Van Nett wondered how the city would make sure not to leave minorities and the historically disenfranchised out of any decisions. “People of color out there and native folks,” she said.

“I want to make sure that as we’re deciding these things, I want to make sure our most at-risk members of the community aren’t taking the brunt just because we have to have a skeleton crew do less with less,” Van Nett said.

The Mayor replied that they are focusing on those marginalized communities through outreach, and they are “working double time.”

As the councilors and the administration got down to the nitty-gritty with the numbers, the underlying tone was that this is a situation that was hard to prepare for, and one no one wants to be in.

“I would give anything, I would give anything to not be in this position as mayor,” Larson said. “I would give anything not to be in this position as an organization.”

The Council and the Mayor’s office are encouraging the public to be a part of this process either through email, watching council meetings virtually online, or calling their councilor directly.

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