seat test

Kendra Bullock tries a seat in the Casper Events Center during an open house to gather public feedback in response to complaints about uncomfortable seating at the venue. The venue’s management hopes to replaces the seats.

Elysia Conner, Star Tribune

There’s a difference between priorities and necessities.

Right now, Casper is in a position where it has no choice but to tackle the latter before considering the former. Necessities, like public safety and other core services, matter most and should be preserved at the highest level. Until the city’s finances are healthier, it should not dole out money unnecessarily.

That means that for now, it should deny a request from Spectra Venue Management — the company that managed the Casper Events Center for the city — for $880,000 to replace five-year-old seats.

There’s nothing wrong with the request. Feedback does seem to indicate that the seats – installed at a cost of $1.2 million – aren’t particularly comfortable.

However, lots of things are uncomfortable at this point. The city has frozen wages, employees with more than 200 hours of disability time had excess hours reduced, and employees are no longer permitted to convert extra disability time to vacation time or the salary equivalent at the end of each year – and it’s still dipping into its reserves, to the tune of $4 million in this year’s budget.

It’s also clear that the events center is doing OK for now. Ticket sales and sponsorships are both on the rise. If this was an issue serious enough to affect the bottom line, it might be worth looking into. But right now, this can’t be a top priority.

This is the time to retain core services and focus on keeping morale up among city workers, and spending close to a million dollars to replace seats that are still in fine shape doesn’t send that message. Of course it would be nice to replace them – and we hope that soon, the city will be in position to do that comfortably. But like other nonessential priorities, this can wait until the economic climate improves.

However, that’s not to say the city can’t take some action during this time. It should be focused on what it can do to keep this problem – a large and long-term purchase that doesn’t work out – from happening again.

Unfortunately, the dialogue coming from City Hall doesn’t indicate that those inside are particularly interested in examination and prevention. For that, they would need a thorough picture of what went into the previous seat purchase decision. Who chose the seats and approved the designs?

“I don’t have access to that information,” City Manager Carter Napier told the Star-Tribune recently.

And that’s not the first time Casper residents have heard that from Napier. He declined to comment on a case related to the Cole Creek Fire, saying he knew little about the case because it was filed before he was hired this summer. The case alleges that the city is liable for starting the destructive 2015 blaze – a significant accusation the city manager should be prepared to discuss regardless of when he started the job.

Without this information, city leaders can’t learn from past problems. They can’t prevent them from happening again. And learning about problems and avoiding them is an essential part of good leadership.

The city should focus on the necessities – and that includes gathering information on which to base future decisions. Now isn’t the time to pay out big sums to fix problems that aren’t urgent, but it is the time to take stock of choices made in the past and learn how they affect us today.

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