Fiscal hawk demands big spending cuts to pass West Fargo budget

Everything appeared to be business as usual as the West Fargo City Commission prepared to approve the 2023 city budget that had been months in the making. But when the budget came up for a crucial final vote, the process went off the rails as two of four commissioners present voted it down, due to concerns over hundreds of thousands of dollars in wasteful spending.

The commissioner leading the charge, Mark Simmons, had flagged numerous line items in recent weeks as the process played out, only to see the spending survive in the final budget. Simmons’ insistence on making the cuts as a condition of passing the budget caught city administrator Tina Fisk by surprise, according to Forum News.

“I was not told to do that (make those cuts), and there have been months of time for people to talk about it, so I just think the staff was blindsided,” she said. “If you had asked as the commission (as a whole) to do it, I would do it.”

Simmons said commissioners including himself and George had individually asked Fisk to consider the cuts, and Dardis mentioned each commissioner had concerns about specific spending items.

“This is nothing new,” Simmons said. “These line items I’ve brought up, I’ve talked about forever and ever. This is nothing new at all. It’s just that nothing was ever done. Nothing was ever done. I think we as commissioners have to say this is it, we’re not just going to go with the flow. We are allowed to make changes. … We are supposed to — we’re the elected officials here.”

The showdown came at a critical time, the last chance for elected officials to pass the budget in order to meet an October 10 state deadline. Otherwise, West Fargo’s mill levy would remain the same as 2022. Simmons stipulated five specific cuts in city departments that must be made in order to gain his support.

Not hiring an additional communications specialist for a savings of up to about $105,000.

Reducing the marketing budget by $50,000, from $70,000 to $20,000.

Cutting the communications department travel budget $4,500, from a proposed $9,500 to $5,000.

Eliminating a $25,000 expense paid to the Dale Carnegie Institute for training programs in the human resources department

Eliminating $25,000 for a consultant to conduct a payroll study by human resources.

“To me, the budget has to pass,” Simmons said. “I will not allow these items to go in there.”

Local taxpayers stand to benefit from Simmons’ last stand.

The spending cuts amount to about $209,500 — nearly the equivalent to 1 mill in the 2023 general mill levy. One mill will be equal to $232,014 for 2023, and additional property taxes will generate about $1.6 million more for the city in 2023.

Simmons said with the additional cuts, the 2023 budget levy will reduce the general mill levy farther, by nearly 1.5 mills.

There was pushback from the opposing commissioners, including Mayor Bernie Dardis. But the robust debate served as a reminder to staff of who’s in charge and who they ultimately work for–the taxpayers.

Dardis said while the discussion was heated, it was needed.

“This discussion is positive despite the tension up here,” Dardis said. “It shows a high regard for what we are doing for the taxpayer. Commissioner Simmons was very troubled by some of the line items.”