By A.C. Hall
On Tuesday, the City Council and city staff started the long process toward setting up next year’s budget with the first of several budget workshops. Things are still being worked on and gone over, but there were some items highlighted on Tuesday as council engaged with the staff about the proposed budget.
Council member Danny Anderson questioned gas royalties, asking how much gas was being pumped out of the city.
“We don’t have those answers,” City Manager Linda Ryan told him.
Anderson said that he’s heard from many citizens who aren’t getting much in the way of royalties.
“You can’t tell me they’re not pumping,” Anderson said.
Ryan said that members of city staff as well as staff from the White Settlement Independent School District have been working on this item.
“They’ve been trying to get these numbers from Chesapeake,” Ryan said.
Anderson continued to voice concerns about this issue.
“We could be missing out on quite a bit of money,” Anderson said. “We need to get these citizens their checks.”
A suggestion was made to contact the Railroad Commission to see if they had the information available about how much gas was being pumped out of the city.
One item that was discussed at length was the automatic pay increases for members of the White Settlement Police Department. There’s a four percent step increase that officers get at the end of each year at a position, with that increase eventually freezing. The increase will then reset and begin anew if they are promoted to a higher position.
Council members Anderson and Elzie Clements asked questions about this automatic raise system, while fellow council member Steve Ott questioned how much of this fell under council jurisdiction.
“There’s nothing we’re going to be able to do about it,” Ott said, referencing civil service rules that might keep council from being able to touch the raises.
Anderson contested that it was in the council budget and therefore their jurisdiction. Human Resources Director Mark Huff stepped in and gave a run down of how the pay system is set up. There are several ranks within the department, but the automatic four percent raise is only given for the first few years an individual spends at that rank. At that point, the raise stops until an individual is able to test and move into a higher rank.
Mayor Jerry Burns commented on this, saying there’s not often an open spot at the higher ranks.
“You could be there ten years waiting to move up,” Burns said.
Despite the possibility of a long wait, Huff said the setup was helpful compared to how it used to be.
“Turnover used to be kind of a problem,” Huff said.
Ryan also spoke on this matter, saying that this system has helped limit turnover.
“This is what gets them in here and keeps them, because they can move up,” Ryan said.
Anderson asked about how much training the city paid for and was told that the city doesn’t pay for officers to go to college, but it does cover them to receive certifications. Officers also then get an ongoing extra amount of money based on their certification level.
This was something Anderson questioned, asking why the city continually pays an officer for a certification that the city paid for them to receive.
“I’m not saying stop doing it,” Anderson said, “but this is going to be a tight budget, and I want a reason for everything we’re spending.”
The total budgeted amount for WSPD personnel is $3.5 million, with around $660,000 of that being covered by the Crime Board.
Anderson was told that the WSPD was currently fully staffed, and he stated that if this meant they had enough people to operate then the council should consider placing a hiring freeze on any additional WSPD positions until sales tax numbers in the city increased.
Moving to the Fire Department, Ryan spoke about a request for a new fire truck, saying it was currently not in the budget.
“I don’t think it’s a necessity this year,” Ryan said.
Ott weighed in on the subject, slightly disagreeing.
“If it’s not a necessity, then it’s real close to being one,” Ott said.
The new fire truck would be able to reach three story buildings.
The fire administrator position was also discussed. Current Fire Chief Brian Thompson also holds a part time paid position as the fire administrator, reporting to the City Manager. Ryan floated the idea of making this a full time position for Thompson at $50,000 per year. She said this could address a concern some council members have voiced about having more control over the fire department.
“If you’re wanting somebody over there more, this is the way,” Ryan said.
She also spoke highly of Thompson.
“You could not ask for anybody more devoted than Brian,” Ryan said.
Some of the issues surrounding this possibility were brought up, including what would happen if Thompson was ever voted out as fire chief by the rest of the fire department. Ryan doubted it would make sense to keep him as fire administrator at that point, saying it’s something that would have to be revisited at that time.
Anderson said he couldn’t see making the move to a full time fire administrator right now, saying the $50,000 salary was an issue for him.
“To me that’s just a little too much this year,” Anderson said.
Anderson also said that as far as getting more control, the fire department operates on city property using city equipment, which should give the city plenty of control over them.
Some other proposed budget items discussed were updates to the kitchens at the Senior Center, new mirrors for the rec center dance studio, and an annual refurbishing of the rec center gym floor.
Ryan also brought up the brick sidewalk outside of City Hall, saying it needed to be replaced because it’s uneven. The estimated cost of this would be $9,500.
“It would cost more than that if someone falls and gets hurt, though,” Anderson said.
Air conditioning units in city hall and the fire department were something else Ryan highlighted, as well as $38,000 for a new vehicle for Animal Control.
“They really need that,” Ryan said of the vehicle.
The final item discussed at the workshop was computers and technology.
“We’ve got some real problems in our computer systems,” Ryan said.
The director over that department recently left, and Ryan said they’re working to replace him.
Budget workshops will continue at City Hall this week as the budget process ramps up.