City starts strategic plan process
The city of Merrill embarked on a strategic planning project last week, a process meant to result in a long-term vision with short-term goals. City officials, department heads and members of the public were involved in the discussion.
During the budget process last fall, some city council members noted a need to start looking at budget issues earlier in the year and called for planning to start in January. The planning process started last week takes a step back to look at the city’s bigger picture before getting into more specific budget-related issues.
“The original purpose was to look at the budget,” said Alderman Dave Sukow. “I’d like to get this moving along. We need to get it done.”
Facilitator Art Lersch, Lincoln County’s UW-Extension Community Development agent, noted that the strategic planning discussions should help prepare city officials for budget talks.
“In theory, this should make that process shorter,” he said. “You will have a foundation on which to work. The primary question is about services and the budget is related to that.”
Lersch began the discussion by presenting Merrill’s economic and demographic trends. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the city of Merrill lost about five percent in population, the largest drop in population since 1900.
“The last decade is the biggest hit you’ve taken since 1900,” Lersch said.
The declining population trend has continued since 2010, with an estimated 1.8 percent drop.
Lincoln County demographics continue to show an aging population, with fewer young people and an increasing number of people over 60.
“Lincoln County is aging a bit faster than the state, which is aging a bit faster than the nation as a whole,” Lersch said.
Projections show that by 2030, one-third of Lincoln County’s population will be in the 60-89 age bracket.
The city’s equalized value has gone down since the mid-2000s. Housing values have fallen and the city has lost manufacturing. About 64 percent of Merrill’s equalized value is in residential property. Residential values have gone down as people have moved out of the city or delayed repairs on their homes. Merrill’s total equalized value is low compared to similar Wisconsin cities.
Employment statistics show an estimated 22 percent decline in manufacturing jobs in Merrill over the past decade. Lincoln County as a whole saw a 32 percent drop in manufacturing jobs from 2003-2012. The greatest job gains were in financial services and education and health services. The net loss in jobs countywide was more than 1,400. The unemployment rate is at about 7.2 percent.
Using data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 42.6 percent of Merrill children are considered economically disadvantaged. The percentage statewide is 41.7 percent.
“This to me is recession specific,” Lersch said. “This area has taken longer to recover from the recession than other areas.”
Lersch asked the participants what their expectations are for the process, resulting in responses that the city should become more efficient and departments and officials should work together.
“Each of us has a piece of the puzzle,” said Police Chief Ken Neff. “We need to understand how we can all work together toward the same goal.”
In terms of what the public wants, participants felt that better services and lower taxes would be at the top of the list. Bringing jobs into the community, improving the openness of city government and making the community more vibrant and attractive also made the list.
The strategic planning meetings will continue on Feb. 13, March 6, March 27 and April 17, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the council chamber of City Hall. The public is invited and encouraged to attend the strategic planning meetings to give input. Lersch will also welcome comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.