Russell, Jackson vote against plan; Reeves ‘optimistic’
By Evan Belanger
Decatur City Council President Greg Reeves said he was “cautiously optimistic” the city can rein in more than $1 million in deficit spending called for in its fiscal 2011 budget.
But Councilman Ronny Russell called the plan “undefined and unrealistic” as the council narrowly approved the new budget in a 3-2 vote Monday.
Prior to the vote, Reeves said the $53.26 million budget would stretch every penny of government spending toward maximum efficiency as the city faces a tight fiscal year.
“We’ve got be to be as efficient as possible and do as much as we can with what we’ve got,” he said.
Russell, however, said he was uncomfortable with revenue projections made by the city’s Finance Department, which overprojected the city’s income during fiscal 2009 and 2010.
He also said he did not trust Mayor Don Stanford’s judgment regarding an ongoing hiring freeze designed to reduce the projected deficit. That freeze calls for Stanford to determine whether vacant positions are critical before the city fills them.
“I believe this budget to be the culmination of the past two years of this administration, which, unfortunately, I feel like has left a legacy of arrogance and embarrassment to this city,” Russell said.
Monday’s voting saw Russell and Councilman Billy Jackson in opposition of the budget, which they blocked from consideration during the council’s Oct. 4 meeting. Reeves and Councilmen Gary Hammon and Roger Anders voted yes.
“I think it’s a very reasonable budget,” Anders said before voting. “I think it’s an attainable budget, and I appreciate the work of Linda (McKinney) and the mayor and Wally (Terry) to get it to us.”
Overall, the budget projects $53.26 million in spending versus $52.26 million in revenues for a deficit topping $1 million during fiscal 2011. Compared to the fiscal 2010 amended budget, that means the city’s spending will be up $352,306 while revenues will be down nearly $1.29 million, according to projections.
Actual numbers for fiscal 2010, which ended Sept. 30, will not be available until November at the earliest.
Included in the budget is $125,000 in revenue to be generated by a 1-percent increase in the lodgings tax charged for local hotel stays. The council approved that tax hike Monday in another 3-2 vote — again with Russell and Jackson in opposition.
After the meeting, Jackson cited a letter from the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau cautioning the tax hike would be harmful as his reason for opposing the tax hike.
“This budget is totally unrealistic,” he said.
To eliminate the projected deficit, Stanford, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, called previously for a hiring freeze for all non-essential positions. According to city estimates, that will save about $400,000 during fiscal 2011.
Stanford also proposed previously a host of spending cuts to be implemented as the fiscal year progresses. Those cuts would take $250,000 from the Parks and Recreation Department, reducing operating hours at some recreation centers, cutting funding to swim programs, and eliminating 18 part-time contract positions.
They would also take $400,000 from other departments in the form of unspecific overtime reductions, efficiency enhancements, increased outsourcing, and fewer part-time contract positions.
Stanford said he may also consider employee layoffs and eliminating the annual merit raises city workers get during their first 10 years of employment if his plan fails to address the projected deficit.
Also included in the fiscal 2011 budget is a $20,000 appropriation to the Carnegie Visual Arts Center — up from the $4,940 the center got in fiscal 2010. But the council will wait at least until its Nov. 1 meeting to consider a contract authorizing that and other city appropriations.
Noel King, president of the Carnegie’s board of directors, said the board requested the delay of its appropriation so the center will have time to evaluate its finances and present the council with any safeguards it plans to implement.
The board announced Thursday the resignation of the Carnegie’s former executive director, Laura Phillips, after the board identified what it termed “accounting irregularities.” A spokesman for the Decatur Police Department said police are investigating a “suspected financial impropriety” at the center.
Despite those reports, Reeves said Monday he was not aware of any discussion aimed at changing the Carnegie’s appropriation. While Jackson said he plans to oppose the group’s funding for budgetary reasons, he said his decision is not related to the ongoing investigation.
Hammon, meanwhile, said the board requested the delay because it was starting a “forensic audit” — an audit suitable for use in a court of law — of its financial records. “They’re wanting to see how that comes out,” he said.
Overall, the fiscal 2011 budget includes $3.02 in appropriations to outside agencies like the Carnegie — down $26,603 from the amended 2010 budget.
Compared to the amended fiscal 2010 budget, it cuts funding to 13 city departments.