by A.C. Hall
The White Settlement City Council met again on Tuesday and announced to a full council chamber that the discussed cuts to the hours of operation of the Library will not be happening after all.
“The funding for the library will not be cut,” Mayor Ronald A. White announced.
He told the many library supporters in attendance that the council had a lot of information to go through as they have worked to prepare the budget. Mayor White said as they have learned more about the budget and the library, they decided to leave the library hours at their current level.
The possibility of this item coming back up at the mid year budget adjustment was mentioned by Mayor White. This was also discussed at a council work session earlier in the day, as it was said that keeping the library’s hours at the current level will give time for council and staff to take a closer look at all the programs that are put on by the library.
Many of those in attendance spoke during the public hearing on the budget and thanked the council for deciding not to cut the library hours. Council member Elzie Clements responded to this, saying that even if people don’t realize it, the council members do listen to the citizens.
“If we could get more input from the city, we’d be a lot better off,” Clements said.
Another issue that was discussed by several people who chose to address the council was the recent 5% raise the council gave to City Manager Jim Ryan. Mayor White addressed this issue several times as he sought to clear up the rumor that Ryan gave himself the raise. The Mayor was asked directly if Ryan gave himself a raise by one citizen.
“That did not happen,” Mayor White said, explaining that the raise for Ryan was given and approved by the city council.
Several people voiced their disapproval of the 5% raise. Many said they felt the raise was too high, often voicing personal experiences of themselves and family members who have not received a raise that high in recent years. One speaker stated they didn’t feel the raise was justified, while another said the council should spend more money on street repairs and less on raises.
The existence and use of the $10.1 million bond council passed many months back was also discussed several times. Mayor White spent some time at the opening of the meeting clearing up some confusion on this, saying it was not true that this bond was passed without any idea of how to spend it. The Mayor stated that all along that money was to be used only on infrastructure and capital improvements projects.
This was addressed later by council member Danny Anderson, who said that almost the entire bond has already been earmarked by council for infrastructure projects and capital purchases. This list of projects includes street and sewer repairs, the drilling of new water wells, upgrades and repairs to the fire station and police station, as well as the purchase of vehicles and equipment for several city departments.
One speaker stated they felt the $10.1 million bond is bad debt that should not have been put on the citizens. Another stated they would like to see the process of spending the bond be very transparent, with a later speaker suggesting the list of uses for that money be posted on the city’s website.
The proposed 4 cent property tax increase was also discussed. One speaker stated that the increase is too high, especially considering that the economy has experienced a long recession.
The connection between the tax rate increase and the $10.1 million bond was addressed by Finance Director Phil Bray. Bray said it was always a possibility that the increase in debt would result in a property tax rate increase, saying that is exactly what happened. Responding to a question from the audience, Bray said in order to fund the debt, the 4 cent property tax increase is necessary.
There was discussion last week about the budget being perfectly balanced. Restoring the library hours changes that, as it will cost around $100,000 to add those hours back into the budget. The budget still doesn’t contain a raise for city employees, something that council appears in agreement on eventually adding in. A discussion was held in the work session about the differences between a merit raise that is given to only some employees versus an across the board cost of living raise for all employees. No decision was made on what kind of raise will be in the budget or how much that raise will be. This will be tackled at one final budget meeting next week.
Once decided, the raise for city employees as well as the restored library hours will cause the budget to fall into the red. Council will look to cover that with existing reserves.
Something that helped the budget a great deal was health insurance negotiations that saw the city secure new health insurance at the same price they currently pay. Initial estimates were for a twenty percent increase in health insurance costs, but instead the costs to the city and to the employees will not increase at all. It was said that the new plan is better in some aspects but worse in others, but overall it was the best deal they could work out for the employees.
One final issue addressed by Mayor White at the council meeting was the way the budget is prepared. The City Manager prepares the initial budget, but then it falls to the council to move it forward from there.
“It’s up to them to make any changes,” Mayor White said.
What’s expected to be the final budget work session is scheduled for Monday at 4 p.m. The budget will be up for final approval at the Sept. 8 council meeting.