Workshop discussion includes sales tax, fire department and memorial wall

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By A.C. Hall

Since taking office, new council member Danny Anderson has spoken about his desire to have a workshop where the council can discuss several issues, and on Friday he got his wish.  Council members, city department heads, and a handful of citizens all gathered in a city conference room as the workshop got underway.  

The first thing discussed was declining sales tax income which is causing many of the city budgets to run behind projections, with most now looking like they’ll end up short.  City Manager Linda Ryan spoke about several projects that have been put on hold and positions that have been dropped in order to limit spending and counteract the lower sales tax revenue.  Ryan also mentioned that the city’s top tax payer, Weir SPM, is expected to have an increase in their business in the summer, which could see increased sales tax coming into the city.

When the EDC budget was discussed,Ryan gave a list of things that could be done like reducing administrative costs, postponing the small business grant program, which is yet to be set up, and using street improvement funds.  That would bring the shortage down to $49,000.

“That should be offset by the activities in Central Park,” Ryan said.

Potential revenue from the renovated park, which is far behind schedule, is not currently in the EDC budget.

One thing some council members spoke against was moving street improvement funds to EDC.  Doing so would save the EDC $105,000, as the street improvement money would go toward roads in and around Central Park that have been worked on during the project.  Some of the council felt the street funds should be used elsewhere.

“We’re in desperate need of street improvements at this state of the game,” council member Elzie Clements said.

Staff members mentioned that street improvements were made as part of the Central Park project, and it was just an idea that could help the EDC deal with their budget shortfall.  Council member Steve Ott spoke against the idea, saying the park project was EDC’s responsibility, not the City’s.

“EDC should be liable for paying for the project,” Ott said.

The way in which the new Central Park will be used was also a topic of discussion.  Anderson spoke critically of the way Veterans Park is closed off, saying he didn’t want to see the new Central Park closed off and used just for rentals.  He went on to say that citizens should have access to the entire park, including possibly playing on the fields when games aren’t going on.

“Their tax dollars are paying for those fields,” Anderson said.

Council member Mike Arnold said he agreed that it would be nice for citizens to have access to all the fields, but spoke about the amount of maintenance dollars that would go to keeping them from being torn up.  Council member Gene Hatcher agreed, saying that parents used to help make sure the fields stayed in good shape, but that might not be the case these days.  The amount of out of town people who use the parks and would potentially not worry about tearing up the fields was also mentioned.

Project Manager Jack Bell weighed in on the conversation.  He told the council about $25,000 worth of theft and vandalism that has occurred during the time Central Park has been under construction.  He agreed that the fields should be open to anyone, but cautioned that they would get torn up if that decision is made.

“It’s {Central Park} a three million dollar asset that we’ve got to look at protecting,” Bell said.

 

MEMORIAL WALL

The fate of the long talked about memorial wall project at Veterans Park was also discussed as ways to save money considered.

“The memorial wall can be put on hold,” Anderson said.

That would bring about $100,000 worth of savings.  As a more in-depth discussion broke out over the wall, the idea of stopping it was called into question.

“I just don’t see stopping something like that,” Arnold said.

EDC Director Jim Ryan spoke on the matter, detailing the process they’ve gone through in trying to determine a system for what names would go on the wall.  The possibility of dropping the names altogether and just making the wall a memorial to all local veterans was brought up, which seemed to have a lot of support from those present.  It would also save money on the project, an estimated $10 to $15 thousand.

The current plan is to have Heartland construct the wall once they complete Central Park.  Anderson said he didn’t have a lot of faith in that idea since Heartland is so far behind on Central.  Jim Ryan agreed that the timing on Central Park hasn’t been ideal, but said he was confident the final product was going to be top notch.

Bell also detailed the design/build style of Heartland which allows the City to avoid having to pay hefty engineer costs on the memorial wall project.

Anderson floated the idea of revisiting the wall project at another time and possibly reworking it.  Getting rid of putting names on it seemed accepted by everyone, but the idea of any postponements to the project seemed to be met with mixed reviews.  Clements said he felt that the wall should move forward, and it’s something that citizens will be proud of.

Anderson broadened the discussion as he spoke about keeping the city budget in line.

“If you’re living on a Chevy budget, you can’t go buy a Cadillac,” Anderson said.  “Let’s do our job and serve these citizens by not raising their taxes.”

The council spoke briefly about the need for them to all work together and to attempt to stay on the same page for the betterment of the city.

 

Fire Department

Anderson had questions about the fire department’s incentive program, and asked Fire Chief Brian Thompson for details.  Thompson stated they maintained around 35 to 40 volunteers, who are now paid a small amount per shift they work, instead of per call like the old incentive program.

Anderson questioned if there was a cap on the program.  Thompson indicated there wasn’t exactly a cap, but he did have a budget that he had to stay within each month.  Anderson stressed that there needed to be a more detailed description of the program and that some sort of cap should be in place.

Clements questioned Thompson about fire trucks he’s seen out driving the streets “for no apparent reason.”  The possibility that firefighters were learning the city, learning to drive the vehicles, or conducting hydrant tests was mentioned.  Thompson said he wasn’t aware of any issues with firefighters driving around when they shouldn’t be, but said he would look into it.

Thompson spoke about the new incentive program overall, saying it has dropped response times and has made more firefighters available while greatly increasing morale.  He also said it has freed them up to do things like hydrant testing that has been hard to accomplish in the past.

“The program is absolutely working,” Thompson said.  “Is it absolutely foolproof?  No.”

One individual in the room stated that as long as it was a volunteer program, it would never be foolproof.

Council member Ott brought up the  possibility of investing in an emergency vehicle warning system.  He had information on a company that installs flashing warning signs outside of fire stations.  They can be remotely activated when an emergency vehicle is about to emerge from the station, warning traffic to stop and look out for the vehicle.  The rough cost estimate was around $7,000, and many in the room appeared to want to pursue further information on the possibility of getting these installed.

City Manager Linda Ryan brought up the possibility of bringing Thompson on as a full time employee of the city.  Currently, Thompson serves as the elected Fire Chief of the department, but he’s also a part time employee of the city as a fire administrator.  Ryan said having him be a full time employee of the city could give the city more control of the fire department.

The fact that the fire chief is elected by the fire department was mentioned, as well as the political issues surrounding that.  The need for the fire administrator to also be the fire chief was mentioned, and Thompson is in a unique position to fulfill both roles since he is self employed with his own business and has the time.  What would happen if he was voted out as fire chief, and what that would mean for the fire administrator position were issues that no one seemed to have answers for yet.

“It’s a whole new can of worms,” Mayor Burns said.

Council was asked to think about it and the new issues and challenges it would bring.

 

Check back next week for the second half of the detailed coverage of this workshop.

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