By SHANNON WATKINS
After voting on two other issues that required a tiebreaker, Pulaski Town Council ended in a stalemate over adopting the next fiscal year’s budget at Tuesday night’s work session, before finally passing it. After almost an hour and some negotiation of line items, the budget finally passed.
Under the finance agenda was a vote on adopting a slight increase in fixed fees for water service, another on adopting the capital improvement plan, and the final item was a vote on adopting the budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
At the June 4 meeting, council passed a motion to direct staff to prepare paperwork to increase the fixed costs of water service in town by 15 percent. The fixed water fee increase would raise most residential water bills by about $1.31 monthly. The additional funds provided by the fee would help offset the cost of an inundation study that is part of the operation and management certification process for Gatewood Dam.
As on June 4, the motion passed after Mayor Jeff Worrell broke a tie by voting in favor of adopting the increased fees, with Councilwoman Heather Steele, Councilmen Greg East and Jamie Radcliffe voting against, and Councilmen Dave Clark, H.M. Kidd and Vice Mayor Joseph Goodman voting “yes” for the motion.
The motion to adopt the capital improvement plan for 2013-2014 went through a similar process, as Steele, East and Radcliffe voted against and Clark, Kidd and Goodman voted for, with Worrell’s vote for adopting the plan as the deciding tiebreaker.
This was also a repeat of the June 4 meeting, when a motion to direct staff to prepare the paperwork to adopt the capital improvement plan split the council in half, with the same three members voting against the motion and the rest of council, including the mayor, voting “yes.”
Before the vote to adopt the capital improvement plan, East said, “The only issue that I have with this was the $5,000 for the awnings, or what have you, for the vehicle [Lady Rebecca, the town trolley housed in an alley but with no covering from the elements]. I thought that that money could be better spent and actually I think we’re looking at other options for the vehicle, housing the vehicle to protect it. I just wanted to make that comment, Mr. Mayor, thank you.”
Goodman said, “If I may, Mr. Mayor, what I would remind council is that at any point we can make a change to this. We are required by law to adopt the capital improvement plan. If in July we determine there’s any change we’d like to make, we can simply pass a motion to modify the existing capital improvement plan. I don’t know if we need a public hearing for it or not, but we can always modify this stuff. It’s not set in stone. I just wanted to relay that. But we are required to pass this.”
After the capital improvement plan was adopted, council turned to the budget, the final item on the finance portion of the meeting’s agenda.
“As this council is very much aware, we have been working on this budget since, I believe, July 17 of last year,” said Worrell. “And we have had much debate. There had been a lot of hard work that’s gone into this year’s budget, I’m certain none of us are 100 percent satisfied with it; there are certainly things that we wish were in there that are not in there.”
He continued, “But it is a compromise and that’s the way it should work. And I am pleased with the proposed budget that we have hammered out, and I would urge council to adopt it.”
Clark made a motion to adopt the budget as written, seconded by Kidd. Worrell asked if there was any discussion, but none was forthcoming. The vote was Steele, East and Radcliffe against, and Clark, Kidd and Goodman voting for adopting the budget.
When the mayor was called upon to break the tie, council was informed by Town Attorney David Warburton that the mayor was not allowed to vote. “It has to pass by majority of the council,” said Warburton, “and for this purpose, the mayor is not a member of the council. You’ve got to have four votes for it, or three to two, but I believe at this point the mayor does not cast a deciding vote on the budget.”
Warburton continued, “Now, I will tell you, you have to have a budget by June 30. So you decide how you want to do it, and I guess I can see [retiring Finance Director] Sherry Boyd’s last days here as being rather memorable, but you need a budget by June 30, 2013.”
Goodman asked if making changes to the budget would require another two-week advertising period.
“I think so,” replied Warburton. “You have to allow the public to have some input if they choose to. If you’re going to have a different budget, you’re going to have to allow the public a chance to look at the different budget.”
Goodman observed that there aren’t 14 days left in the month in which to advertise.
“Lady and gentlemen, you do what you wish, but you’ve got to have a budget as close to June 30 as you can,” advised Warburton, “because otherwise you can’t spend any money. Which is fine, but the employees aren’t going to like it. Contracts have to be honored, etc.”
Kidd asked, “How much money are you talking about?”
“The entire budget,” said Warburton. Clark asked for clarification.
“You gotta pay your contracts, you gotta pay your purchased services,” said Warburton, “but among other people, council won’t get paid, I won’t get paid–I don’t know the answer regarding your full-time employees, but I think you’re gonna have a budget before you can pay them…or the consequence is, we don’t have one, we can’t do anything other than honor our current contracts.”
Clark asked, “What does that do to services?”
“Well, you have people like me, who believe in giving back to their town,” said Warburton. “I’ll work without a contract, without getting paid for a little while. But I don’t know that I speak for everybody.”
“Would you say that we face a potential shutdown in government, in post-government services?” asked Goodman.
“I will not say that,” advised Warburton. “I will let you say that, but I will not say that. I understand what you’re saying, I know where you’re going with it, but I will not say that.” He added that income would still come in from the state but would not be able to be spent.
Goodman advised the council to try to work out an agreeable budget immediately.
“Oh, I don’t think you have any choice but to do that,” said Worrell.
“My preference as the town’s attorney is that you have a budget tonight if at all possible,” said Warburton.
Worrell advised that the council review the budget and discuss whichever portions of it they took issue with.
East said, “I think we had some opportunities that were missed.” He mentioned the increase in water fees, which led to debate about the necessity of raising them. He said the council had an eight-year history of raising fees to balance the budget, and thought balancing was best done otherwise.
“What would you cut?” Worrell asked.
East mentioned merging some public jobs with others, mentioning the Economic Developer’s position, which was funded by an Urban Development Action Grant but now is paid out of the general fund.
Steele echoed East’s sentiments, saying she did not want to raise fees to balance the budget.
The debate at various points became a running dialogue between East and Goodman.
East brought up The Ratcliffe museum’s part-time position, funded by the budget, saying the museum was originally intended to be manned only by volunteers. The budget called for about a $16,000 total line item for paid museum employees.
East went on to say, of trimming the budget, “I think there are some [positions] where we could take advantage of streamlining and merging positions to the benefit of the budget and the benefit of the town,” he said, after saying, “I feel we have a responsibility to be more efficient,” and citing what he felt was the town’s “bloated government.”
He continued, “Economic Development, and this is no offense to Mr. White [Economic Developer John White, present for the meeting] at all, economic development is a but redundant. We have county economic development. You had suggested, Mr. Goodman, we go into maybe a community development-type position and merge a couple positions.”
He cited the position held by Barbi Tate, acting as Community Relations Director, and spoke of merging that with Economic Development, a suggestion made earlier this year by Goodman.
After further discussion the possibility of merging positions was left behind for the time being when Worrell spoke up.
“It’s disappointing to me that we have gotten to this point and all the issues that ought to have been brought up, be they the museum or the water fees,” he said. “There were copies of this budget up four months ago, and how we got to this stalemate—we’re doing things we railed at the federal government for doing, and then we turned around and did exactly the same thing. I think the citizens deserve better leadership than they’re getting here this evening.”
He suggested that there was not enough information to make a decision about merging positions.
Warburton asked to weigh in, saying, “Frankly, I didn’t see this one coming, so you’ll have to be a little forgiving. I’ll have to walk back a little of what I said earlier.” He said that the town charter allows the council to amend the budget as long as no increases are made, although decreases would be acceptable. He noted that it could also be adopted within the first six weeks of the fiscal year and would be retroactive.
He added, “No monies can be expended for town purposes after the expiration of six weeks until after the budget shall have been adopted,” apologizing for any misinformation previously.
Warburton also said he did not believe the budget would need to be readvertised as long as it did not go up.
“I’d rather see the budget pass tonight,” said Goodman. “I think we’re doing a disservice to our citizens. I hate to try to bargain in public, but I think that’s what we’re at now. The question I’d ask the three of you [Steele, East and Radcliffe] is, what would it take to pass this budget tonight?”
Goodman said that they could possibly cancel the increased rates in fixed water service fees, but in order to pay for the dam study, another $50,000 would have to be located somewhere in the budget.
Town Manager John Hawley pointed out that the actual revenue generated by the fees would be $81,000.
Goodman also offered the compromise of changing the water fees to a 12-month surcharge that would expire next year.
Clark addressed the council, saying, “For those of you who are up here, besides the mayor, I’ve been through more budgets than anyone. If I step on any toes I apologize to you up front. We’ve been hammering on this budget for 11 months. There’s not been a word said during this discussion that hasn’t been said during those 11 months. Everything that everyone’s disagreeing with was said ahead of time. No one up here came up with a way to fix it during those 11 months. No budget that we’ve had in this town in the eight years that I’ve been doing this has satisfied me. This one doesn’t either. But we have to continue our operations. And we have to work every year to try to do better at those operations. What we’re doing right now is not our job. Our job is to take care of the citizens of this town.” He pointed out that council could disagree indefinitely but this would not move things forward.
“I’m agreeing with you,” said Kidd. “I think we’ve worked through it and…I think we’ve all made changes. But I think it’s a disservice if we can’t adopt this budget.”
Radcliffe pointed out that he thought funding for public vehicles was a more important use of the budget than part-time wages for the museum employees, leading to further discussion of cutting back museum worker wages and bringing up again the possibility of merging the community relations and economic development positions.
“I just want to be clear that anything I’ve said here tonight wasn’t meant to be offensive to staff or anyone,” said East. “I’m simply looking at a budget where we, as council, are obligated to give our citizens the best we can give them and I think we have an obligation to be as efficient as we can be.”
Goodman advised he wanted the same thing, but that in terms of merging positions, there might be an overload of work on persons holding what could amount to two jobs.
Despite this observation, and after much further discussion, council temporarily left the topic of the budget itself and voted to work with staff to develop a process, beginning at July work session, to discuss a merger of the economic development director, community relations director and senior center director positions, that is to be complete within 120 days.
Steele asked if council was reducing the museum employees’ funding by about $8,000, was it possible to reallocate those funds for the Gatewood facility. Further discussion was pursued to determine what exact work would need to be done on it.
“Is this what council wants, you want us to redo the showers, redo the total bathhouse? We need some direction on what we do here,” said Hawley. “We want to basically refit, basically strip the structure and put everything new back in?”
“If we could just get a price, get a plan of what we want to do, we’d just be that much closer to actually pulling the trigger,” said East.
After more debate, council voted unanimously to adopt the 2013-2014 fiscal year budget with the reduction in part-time museum employees’ wages before going into a 10-minute recess.