Strapped cities enlist volunteers to pick up slack (and weeds, garbage)

Volunteer LaVergne Dickerson
Volunteer LaVergne Dickerson and her family tend a garden in Levee Park in Red Wing, Minn.
Courtesy Donna Dummer

In early February, with Red Wing blanketed in snow, it's hard to see all that the city's volunteer corps has accomplished since its start more than two years ago, but examples abound.

Organized by former Mayor Donna Dummer, volunteers have planted and weeded the city's parks, watered hundreds of flower baskets, painted picnic tables, raised flags, gathered trash, maintained city entrance signs, surveyed fire hydrants and even cleaned windows at bus stop shelters.

Many of these tasks - centered on summer maintenance - were once performed by city employees and paid seasonal workers.

From a window table at Red Wing's St. James Hotel, Dummer, an energetic woman who served as mayor from 2005 to 2008, explains that when the first cuts to state local government aid funding hit Red Wing, she and a handful of city officials saw increasing volunteerism as a solution.

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"People are starting to think in this mode," she says. "They want the community to look the same, but there are budget cuts. The need for volunteers is growing."


Faced with shrinking revenue, many cities across Minnesota are finding new ways to provide services, including collaboration with neighboring cities, the use of technology, employee cross-training, and, as Dummer points out, the enlistment of volunteers.

Adopt-a-park programs abound in the state. Cities from Albert Lea to St. Cloud rely on citizens to maintain parks, flower beds and beaches.

Donna Dummer
Former mayor Donna Dummer organized Red Wing's 200-member volunteer corps for two years.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

In Redwood Falls, a nonprofit takes care of Alexander Ramsey Park, the largest municipal park in the state. Mankato has begun recruiting volunteer police officers and, a little over a year ago, established its own volunteer corps to do everything from brush clearing to mowing.

Laura Elvebak, who coordinates Mankato's 50-member volunteer program, says, "Cities are starting to have these discussions. What are the core services? What are the secondary and livability services? There is a lot more communication. If the desire is to keep those secondary and livability services viable, citizens are going to have to step forward. Cities aren't going to be able to provide all the services people are used to. Citizens are open to that. They understand that."

The League of Minnesota Cities, in fact, is planning a series of community conversations on just this topic. With the goal of cultivating "broader thinking" and "better solutions," the league is presently seeking cities to host the forums.

Red Wing Council Administrator Kay Kuhlmann says her city has cut 25 employees since 2009, 16 of them from public works (a common target, since parks are often viewed as nonessential).

At the same time, the city's general fund expenditures were reduced by more than $2 million, to just under $14 million this year. Kuhlmann has come to rely on the city's organized network of 200 volunteers to help keep Red Wing, a tourist destination, looking spiffy.

Colvill Park in Red Wing
Much of the volunteer effort in Red Wing focuses on park maintenance, from planting to weeding.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

"I don't even know the value of this. It's probably over $100,000 per year. It's so much." "We used to do all the maintenance on picnic tables," Kuhlmann says by way of example. "We'd pull them in and the guys would work on them for the winter. We don't do any of that now. We leave them out all winter and in the spring we get a service club to replace the bad boards. We used to do all the tree planting. But in the last couple of years, groups have said, if you bring the equipment, we'll do all the work. Instead of having a team of two or three guys do it, we have one guy and five or six volunteers."

Cities have always used volunteers, says Dummer, who left her post as organizer last fall (Red Wing is searching for a replacement). "But this is a different thing, more organized."


The city lets the organizer know about a need (the bus stop shelter windows are filthy, for example). The city usually provides the cleaning materials, or the trees to plant or the bags for weeding. The organizer gets on the phone or puts a notice in the local newsletter to find suitable candidates, either individuals or groups like the Boy Scouts of America (which removed buckthorn in Mankato).

Dummer recalls with relish that in 2009, more than 100 Frito-Lay managers came to Red Wing for a conference at nearby Treasure Island casino. As a team-building exercise, they offered to spend a day volunteering.

What could Dummer have all these people do in one day? She found a worthy task: cleaning flower urns in the graveyard.

It was raining, so "they all wore black garbage bags," she recalls. "They looked like an army of [friendly] Darth Vaders."

The call to volunteer is a national one, made most prominently by President Obama and, in turn, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In 2009, Bloomberg began a city volunteer corps and then launched a coalition of cities focused on public service. His philanthropic organization and the Rockefeller Foundation have awarded grants to 10 cities - including Detroit, Chicago and Seattle - to hire "chief service officers" and start volunteer efforts.


Does state have role in pushing for volunteers? Minnesota Representative Paul Marquart, DFL- Dilworth, is preparing a bill that would push for more volunteerism in the state. He introduced a similar bill last session, but too late for a hearing. He expects to have a new draft in a month.

The legislation would require the state to establish a mission statement and performance goals. It also would create a "civic agency" with a state-level commissioner in charge of volunteerism, which he describes as "kind of a clearinghouse and also an umbrella."

"If we're going to reach our goals as a state," says Marquart, "we have to have active engagement from citizens. We have to increase stewardship. We have to bring all this together to achieve these goals."

He acknowledges that volunteering also saves precious dollars. "With the budget problems we have, it's even more important to engage the volunteer sector in what we're trying to accomplish as a state."

Some wonder if placing a layer of bureaucracy atop an existing volunteering network is such a great idea.

"We as an organization don't agree 100 percent with this legislation," says Kristin Schurrer, executive director of HandsOn Twin Cities.

"It talks about partnering with one agency from the volunteerism field to be the clearinghouse," potentially to the detriment of others. "It's not good for a state agency to put a nonprofit out of business."

Schurrer notes that after Gov. Jesse Ventura disbanded the Minnesota Office of Citizenship and Volunteer Services in 2002, "so many of us picked up those services." So, why go back and recreate the wheel? "Creating a whole state agency isn't necessary," she says.

Marquart responds that he doesn't yet know which volunteerism organization the state might partner with. He defends the notion of a governmental umbrella: "I think you would actually get more volunteers," he says. "If people saw that the state had a plan, that the state actually had a direction, I think it would bring more volunteers to the table. It would increase engagement because people would see that more was going to get done."

In Red Wing, Dummer says civic pride is what prompts citizens to donate their time (along with the appreciation parties at the end of summer with root beer floats and popcorn). Of course, there are limits to what volunteers can do. The city took back maintenance of some of its larger, more prominent parks after a spate of unsightly weed growth.

"Volunteers are just that," says Dummer. "They're volunteers." You don't ask them to show up every day. "You ask them to be there every other week."

Still, she says, engaging citizens is important work. Sometimes it even brings surprises. Sipping her tea at the St. James, she tells of a father, laid off from his job, and his son, who took over weeding a garden in nearby Levee Park.

"There is a statue of a jester there and the father planted a corn stalk behind it. At first we didn't know what it was, but then it got bigger and bigger and we realized it was a single corn stalk." Dummer smiles. "It was whimsical."