But some criticize hefty raise administrator got to keep him from leaving


By Jennifer Eisenbart

Staff writer

Kevin Lahner

The City of Burlington almost lost its grip on its City Administrator last week.

After letting the city know he would be interviewing for the position of city administrator in Elk River, Minn., Kevin Lahner came back ready to resign and head to the rapidly growing suburb north of Minneapolis.

But in a hastily called closed session meeting of the City Council last Thursday, the council voted 6-2 to extend a contract extension and raise to Lahner.

The meeting lasted two and a half hours on Sept. 15, and the decision isn’t without its detractors. Aldermen Katie Simenson and Steve Rauch were the no votes on the contract.

Lahner said Tuesday night that he was in a difficult situation when the job offer came in.

“My situation was I had a very unique opportunity for me and my family in a place I knew very well,” Lahner explained. “Ultimately, the right choice was to stay in Burlington.

“I was very humbled by the support that came out.”

City of Burlington Mayor Bob Miller said the issue flew under the radar for as long as it did by his choice.

“It was my choice and my decision … in the hope he would not end up in the position where he did,” Miller said. “As it turned out, it was a bad decision on my part.

“Elk River was ready to make the move as soon as possible.”

Contrary to rumors, though, Lahner had not actually submitted his resignation.

“He had not handed it in yet. He had been offered the job,” Miller said. “They were in the process of negotiating with him a contract when we made him our offer.”

The City of Burlington offered Lahner a five-year contract with a base salary locked for all five years. Miller said the contract is worth about $133,000 in base salary. There is no cost of living increase or merit increase.

Lahner’s base salary on Jan. 1, 2012, would have been $116,000. The original offer from Elk River, stated in the ad for the position, would have started at $125,000.

There is, however, a clause in the contract, according to Miller, tying Lahner to the city. If the city administrator should choose to leave any time in the next five years, he would have to pay back any money gotten through the raise.

Lahner’s raise comes at a time when the city is just beginning its budget process for 2012.

Simenson said that paying that large of a raise was too much, especially given the size of the city. She pointed out that Elk River has roughly double the population of Burlington.

“I think there are good people who would come to Burlington,” Simenson said. “I believe there are people out there … who would do the job for less money.

“We need to stay within our budgets,” she added.

Miller said it was important for the city to retain Lahner, with numerous projects in the works to help out the city and also for the work already done.

“It’s important we keep the continuity there,” Miller said, then added a glowing report about Lahner’s service to the city.

“Kevin Lahner has been the best city administrator this city has ever had,” Miller stated bluntly. “When Kevin came on board, the city was having to dip into the reserve fund each and every year to balance our budget.

“Under Kevin’s guidance … the fund balance is now secured at 28 percent,” Miller said. “The goal for the city was 25 percent.”

Miller also said Lahner has spent a “great deal of time” reorganizing the city, creating cost-saving opportunities. Another cost-saving measure, with the City of Burlington police, was discussed Tuesday night at the City Council.

“If we were to lose him, we would’ve had to do a search all over again,” said Miller, adding that the cost to do another applicant search would cost the city anywhere between $25,000 and $30,000.

Miller also said that to make a viable offer to any applicant, the city would have to have offered somewhere between $118,000-$120,000 a year – more than Lahner’s previous contract.

Lahner had already agreed to a pay cut of sorts already this year, taking on the costs of his pension and health insurance as prescribed by the budget repair act. Lahner would not have had to make that commitment, but chose to move forward with paying those costs in a show of support for what unionized employees were shouldering.

Miller admitted he knew there would be criticism of the raise, but also some support.

“The city chose to keep a quality individual,” Miller said. “If this city is going to move forward, we need to have quality individuals.”