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Acting Park and Rec director: City needs recreation director

Rochester Acting Park and Recreation Director Mike Nigbur plans to request a release of funds to hire a recreation director, a position that has been frozen since former recreation director Steve Browning retired at the end of August.

Nigbur said he will request the city's Park Board, during its meeting Tuesday, to ask the Rochester City Council to release the funds because Park and Recreation offers many activities that require the coordination of a dedicated recreation division head. However, Nigbur recommends that the job, going forward, be managerial rather than at the higher-paid director level.

Also, Nigbur sees opportunities for expanding Park and Rec's scope of activities to serve the city's changing and growing population, which also would require a full-time employee, he said.

"Our culture's changed, our demographics have changed and we should be keeping up with the times as to what we're providing for recreation programming," Nigbur said.

For example, Park and Rec could offer wellness/exercise activities for seniors and get back to doing more youth sports camps, he said, "whether it's archery or canoeing, tennis, playing soccer, things like that — sports camps where kids can learn a little bit about each different sport."

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At the request of the City Council in March, the Park and Rec Department conducted an analysis of its operational structure and activity offerings, and compared those to similar Minnesota cities. The analysis was to be used to help determine whether the city still needs a recreation director.

Nigbur's recommendation to fill the position is a result of that analysis, although he is bringing the issue forward much sooner than the Park Board and City Council expected. Both assumed the matter would wait until after a Park and Rec director is hired, said Park Board President Rod Toomey and Councilman Ed Hruska.

Search for Park and Rec director

The Rochester Human Resources Department has been working with the Park Board hiring committee to sift through the 44 applicants for the Park and Rec director job, formerly held by Ron Bastian. About half of the applicants are qualified for the position, said Human Resources Director Linda Hillenbrand.

The Park and Rec Director position was advertised with an annual salary range of between $98,235 and $147,353, depending on qualifications and experience. HR and the hiring committee plan to narrow the applicant field to nine people, who will undergo phone screening interviews next week. Those screenings will determine who the Park Board will interview in person, Hillenbrand said.

While the City Council must approve funding for positions, the Park Board has the authority to hire a department head, City Administrator Steve Kvenvold said.

The City Council froze hiring for both positions in March, anticipating the retirement of Browning and Bastian, whose last day was June 30. At the Park Board's request in September, the council approved funding to replace Bastian.

"And at the time, the board elected not to ask to release (funding for) the recreation director yet, as we wanted to look into it some more and get input," Toomey said.

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The Park Board and City Council figured the new Park and Rec director would work with his staff to determine whether a recreation director is still needed, Hruska said.

That still will happen, as the recreation director position wouldn't be filled until after a Park and Rec director is hired, Nigbur said.

"And if the board accepts the analysis we've done, and says yes, the recreation position is still needed, then we move forward to the council for their review," Nigbur said.

Funding for the recreation position is included in the proposed 2014 city budget, pending approval to fill the job, Kvenvold said.

Hruska brought up the idea to freeze hiring for both positions and suggested that the city's and county's park departments could be combined with one person overseeing both.

However, in early September, an ad hoc committee formed to look into the matter recommended the departments remain separate.

Hruska said on Tuesday that he hadn't had a chance to talk to Nigbur about the timing of his request, but he thinks more time is needed to investigate whether a recreation director is needed.

"I don't see why making a decision before we've hired a (Park and Rec) director makes any sense," Hruska said.

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Most of what Browning did as recreation director was coordinate all of the department's sports activities. When he retired, his annual salary was about $89,000, Hillenbrand said.

At least one of Browning's old duties will now be handled by the Rochester Softball Association, which is taking over coordination of the slow-pitch softball leagues, Hruska pointed out.

"So, I'm not sure that government needs to do everything for people. If we're trying to keep costs down and trying to be more efficient, I don't know that I agree with government doing everything for everybody for recreation," Hruska said.

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