Helena-West Helena City Council got down to some serious budget talks Monday and Tuesday evenings as they rolled up their sleeves in an effort to come to a consensus on the 2013 budget.
Council members aired their personal opinions regarding the financial status of the city generating a wide range of emotions.
Council members questioned several of the department heads hoping to gain insight into each department's financial endeavors while attempting to save as much money as possible. District court, the sanitation and the police departments all came under scrutiny.
According to City Clerk Sandi Ramsey, the city receives funds from the municipal court fund, which is currently being placed in an account separate from the general fund for payment for prisoner care. This, she said, will create a paper trail as to where that money is being filed.
Ramsey confirmed that salaries come out of general funds. District Court Clerk Dionne Carter presented the council the financial information needed to help them move forward with their caseload in a more effective and timely manner.
“We handle about 100 cases a day,” said Carter. “We feel that we would be able to get more accomplished with a new server.”
Councilman John Huff suggested the council consider hiring a part-time staff member to help.
Sanitation Department Director Bobby Jones was asked about department salaries and equipment needs.
“Our trucks are constantly breaking down and we're a little over on our overtime,” commented Jones.
Huff reintroduced the idea of consolidating the streets and sanitation departments, which would require only one director.
Police Chief Uless Wallace confirmed that the department is currently in a contract for fuel but are looking into other options to reduce fuel costs.
“The only officers that take their vehicles home are myself, Assistant Chief Scott and CID crew,” reported Wallace.
According to Scott, the department is looking into the best rates the state has to offer including statewide fleets.
“We may experience some bumps in the road because the city's credit is not up to par for the needed vehicles,” said Scott.
According to Wallace the H-HWPD has managed to decrease overtime, ensuring that everyone has the proper 2 days off a week.
“Right now we're hanging in there,” he said. “We're still 10 officers short and only have 2 salary paid employees, myself and my assistant chief.”
Councilman Christopher Franklin asked each department head present concerning their strategy for saving money.
“We're too top heavy,” explained Franklin.
Huff agreed stating that the city should focus on saving money beginning with the Parks and Recreation Department.
“We should zero the director position out,” stated Huff.
Anthony Banks, parks and recreation director, is facing two counts of sexual assault, one count of indecent exposure and abuse of authority. Banks is currently out of a $50,000 bond.
Page 2 of 2 - “We don't need to leave this position open right now. We currently can't afford to pay him if there are no services rendered for payment and the money that is afforded to the director should be used elsewhere,” commented Franklin.
Councilman Jay Hollowell stated that the council's main focus should be to pass a budget and amend changes to the line items after.
“I'm all for listening to proposals as far as saving money, but until we pass a budget before Feb. 1, it makes no sense to discuss changes that can be incorporated later,” commented Hollowell.
Huff and other council members disagreed stating that they would rather discuss the line items that present problems than to pass a budget that they feel will not be amended correctly.
“As we're talking cuts, I feel that we need to eliminate the deputy attorney as well,” commented Huff.
City Attorney Chalk Mitchell explained that based on his “forever growing piles of cases,” the deputy attorney position needs to remain.
“I take this as a personal attack against me as you are requesting that this body take away any extra help from me,” commented Mitchell.
According to Huff, unless the council approved the contract, the deputy attorney shall be paid out of the city's attorney's salary.
The pressure of the tight time frame hung over the council as they reviewed their limited options.
“I understand that there are several issues that we wish to discuss but the truth is we have to approve a budget before we can move forward,” stated council member Vivian Holder.
Huff commented that he doesn't see how the city is saving money when the mayor continues to hire someone in the positions that are made vacant by the manpower cuts that already have been made.
“We are steady spending money that we don't have,” he stressed.
The council continued to debate several line items based on the numbers reflected by the 2012 budget.
“It makes no sense to take the numbers from each department head that were pulled from last year when we know based on this previous years results that they don't work,” commented councilman Don Etherly.
The council agreed to pass the proposed budget but with a recommended motion to zero out the parks and recreation's directors pay. The council agreed that there is still more that needs to be addressed but are hopeful that the line items and the possible consolidation of the Street and Sanitation departments would be reviewed in the near future.