Volunteers help fill holes that budget cuts left in cities’ staffs

By Jean Hopfensperger
Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN (February 27, 2011)- Deeby Kadrie staffed the reception desk of the Wayzata Public Works Department last week, fielding calls, preparing a mailing and signing for parcels. She loves the job- even though she isn’t getting paid. Kadrie is among about 120 volunteers helping the western suburb cope with the loss of 10 employee positions in the past two years, or about 15 percent of its workforce.


Across the state, volunteers are bailing out government. “We knew that volunteers couldn’t replace our layoffs, but we were looking to see if we could continue providing our services with diminished staff,” said Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox. “Plus, I wanted people [residents] to understand the stress that the economy was putting on the city budget.”
While volunteers long have helped parks and rec departments, they now are venturing into new territory as cities and government agencies look for ways to soften budget cuts. “There’s definitely a trend,” said Kevin Frazell, member services director for the Minnesota League of Cities. The League found 55 examples of cities turning to volunteers to help fill in staff or budget gaps. For the first time, it will award a city for “Effective Use of Volunteers.”
For folks such as Kadrie, it makes sense to tap residents’ time and talent. “This is work I know how to do. Plus, I’m contributing to the city,” said Kadrie, a retired office worker who spends four hours a week in her secretary job. “I hope other municipalities do this.”
Minnesota has long been a national leader in volunteerism. About 1.5 million Minnesotans volunteered 171 million hours in 2009, according to the Corporation for National Community Service. With the economic downturn, volunteers are keeping services running for nonprofits and government agencies, according to a new survey by the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration. Fifty-five percent of the 350 agencies and nonprofits surveyed said they relied on volunteers more than two years ago, and 30 percent reported volunteers had preserved their services.
Mary Quirk, an association manager, said calls from government groups are growing. “In one week, I got five requests from government agencies asking about information on volunteers,” she said. “Normally I get five a year.”
Cities say they’re not replacing workers, but filling gaps left by staff and budget cuts. The volunteers support paid workers, many of whom are shouldering more responsibilities. Mankato, for example, has designated a city volunteer coordinator to work with department heads and nail down ways volunteers can support them, said Laura Elvebak, volunteer coordinator. Adding volunteer muscle to labor-intensive city gardens was a priority last year, Elvebak said. The Public Works Department prepared the flower beds and ordered the flowers, she said, but volunteers did the planting. Volunteers also helped mow grass in the parks, dig weeds and care for city flower planters.
Red Wing, which lost 20 employees in two years, has posted nearly 20 volunteer jobs on its website to do tasks that in the past were handled by city staff. Jobs include cleaning bus shelters, raking the city cemetery and helping with “staking and inspecting city construction projects.”
Other cities are using volunteers on a case-by-case basis. Ham Lake, for example, eliminated funding for its senior center coordinator. Instead, it tapped a federally subsidized worker and picked up extra volunteers, said Doris Nivala, city administrator. Wayzata took a focused approach. After cutting $700,000 from its budget over two years, it “hired” an unpaid volunteer coordinator and chose three priority areas- city gardens, city administration and Boardwalk Senior Apartments. “Those were the areas that were cut,” said Lynn McCarthy, a retired public relations executive who’s the volunteer coordinator.
At City Hall and the Public Works Department, they experimented with secretarial support. Folks such as Kadrie staffed the phones a couple of hours a day so the paid secretary could run business errands and the phone could be answered during lunch break. The city recruited more than 100 residents to plant community gardens. When it cut $10,000 to a nonprofit providing activities at a senior citizen complex, it recruited volunteers to teach genealogy, computer skills and more.
One of the most labor-intensive volunteer jobs involved scanning City Council minutes from 1940 to 1980 for a digital archive. Sue Schroeder, a computer programmer looking for work, volunteered part time for four months transferring decades of meetings. She also taught computer classes to seniors. She represents one reason cities find so many volunteers: A lot of skilled people are out of work. “I’ve been out of work and watching my retirement go down,” said Schroeder, named the 2010 Volunteer of the Year. “This allowed me to use my skills…and keep my sanity.”
Not all jobs are created equal. Wayzata tried using volunteer receptionists at City Hall, but callers wanted information volunteers didn’t know. Red Wing tried using volunteers to maintain a complex community garden, but they weren’t up to the task. The key to tapping volunteers successfully is to find meaningful, fun opportunities, said Noreen Buhmann, volunteer coordinator for the Three Rivers Park District, which has 1,700 volunteers. “People want to learn and contribute,” she said. The work “should be enjoyable or rewarding. And you need to provide training for the more complex work.” Cities stress that volunteers alone won’t solve budget woes. They’re looking at other ideas as well. “We just have to get the cost of government down,” said Willcox. “There’s a lot of imagination directed that way.”

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Star Tribune: Volunteers help fill holes that budget cuts left in cities’ staffs