As deadline looms, Pulaski budget still up in air

Twenty-two days remain for Pulaski Town Council to approve a budget before the June 30 deadline.  But as that deadline looms, at least half of the six members of council are very much opposed to approving the fiscal plan as it is now proposed and want cuts made.

The budget proposal for 2018-19 is balanced at $19,555,116, which includes $3.7 million in the town’s water fund, $6 million in the sewer fund and $9.8 million in the general fund.

Spending in the budget proposal is about 27 percent higher than the current year’s budget, according to Town Manager Shawn Utt.  That increase is being driven by two large capital improvement projects in the town’s water and sewer enterprise funds.

Meanwhile, spending in the $9.8 million general fund – which covers all spending by the town outside of water and sewer – is proposed to increase next year by less than a percent at $45,767.

But some on council – namely Vice Mayor Greg East and councilmen Jamie Radcliffe and Lane Penn – oppose any increase in spending and instead are lobbying hard for cuts.

In most years, a balanced budget with no tax increases would easily make its way to approval, but not this year.

At last week’s budget work session, East raised concern over how the town’s general fund expenses are outpacing revenues year after year, continuing what he views as a disastrous trend for the future.

Comparing revenues and expenses from fiscal year 2016 to the proposed figures for 2019, East said general fund expenses have outpaced revenues by about $250,000.

With that in mind, East proposed that Utt bring to council a budget proposal with across the board cuts to the general fund of 2.5 percent – or about $250,000.

Between last week’s budget work session and Tuesday night’s regular council meeting, East provided council and Utt with a list of budget areas in which he thought savings might be found.

“When you look at a $10 million general fund budget, and you say cut 2.5 percent or $250,000 – it doesn’t look like an incredibly huge number to ask for,” East said Tuesday.

Utt responded that making a 2.5 percent cut in some departments might not be as difficult as it would be in the police and fire departments where such cuts would represent a “good chunk” of their budgets.

“It would be difficult to identify 2.5 percent in cuts without affecting personnel,” Utt stated, noting that in most departments, a 2.5 percent cut would have to come from personnel.

A debate ensued about filling vacancies in the police department, and comparisons between the size of Pulaski’s police department and those of other communities such as Pearisburg, Vinton, Wytheville, Galax and others.

East argued that the town’s police department would still be larger per capita than the other area departments, even if all the vacant positions in Pulaski weren’t filled. That would save money, he argued.

Utt suggested comparing crime statistics for Pulaski to the other area communities and added that not filling the department’s vacancies could hamper its efforts with bike patrols.

East countered that council has been talking about bike patrols for three years and “we still don’t have bike patrols.”

Utt responded that the department has a “full complement” of bike patrol officers.

“Maybe around the Marketplace, otherwise I don’t see them, and I live just a block over,” responded East.

Councilman Joseph Goodman said he thinks there are some things East isn’t considering.

“We’ve been working hard to clean up our community and what you’re suggesting is we reduce the number of officers we have,” Goodman said.

“We’ve had three of five positions that have not been filled in as many years,” East responded. “There has always been a number of vacancies. I’m not suggesting we decrease current staff.”

Currently the town’s police department has 26 sworn officers and considers 29 as being “fully staffed.”

East questioned why budget for positions that have not been filled for a “very long time,” and suggested the police department would still have more officers per capita than neighboring departments if the full staffed level was reduced by one to 28 sworn officers.

Goodman and Utt noted, however, that the department had been fully staffed at 29 sworn officers as late as December 2017.

“What we have done as a council and as a staff is every time we have an increase in revenues, we increase our spending,” East charged. “We can’t continue to do that.”

“We aren’t always going to have an increase in our revenues from a cell tower sale or lease, or from land being sold. Those revenues are going to start to level off while our spending is not. So, it’s going to outpace our revenues,” East continued. “We need to be responsible.”

“The police department budget is 25 percent of the town’s budget,” East continued. “That isn’t unusual for a community, but where are you going to look if you’re trying to save $250,000 or $125,000? The first place you are going to is what’s 25 percent of the budget. I think we need to have an open, honest discussion and stop trying to protect ‘sacred cows’ if you will. Put it all on the table and do what is responsible. I don’t think having 28 sworn officers opposed to 29 is irresponsible. I think it’s very responsible.”

Councilman H.M. Kidd called the police department’s staffing level a “safety issue.”

“You’ve got these guys (police officers) out here and if one or two get hurt in a fight they have in the street, they’re out of work and that puts more on the other officers,” Kidd said.

Goodman asked what is the town to do if it finds it can bring on a 29th officer, but there’s no money budgeted to do so.

“You don’t bring them on,” responded East.

Mayor Nick Glenn responded to Goodman.

“You’re asking what happens if you bring on the 29th officer. What Greg (East) is saying – and I tend to agree with him – is what happens if your revenue stream doesn’t equal your expense stream and you actually have to lay off officers 28, 27 and 26 instead of hiring 29. That’s what is going to happen in the long run,” Glenn said.

“I don’t want to sacrifice public safety,” Goodman stated. “We have open positions in public works, why aren’t we talking about eliminating those positions? Because we need them, and we need these (police) positions filled. If we’re going to talk about this, we need to talk about every position.”

“That’s technically what you should do,” Glenn responded.”

“We’re going to get to a situation where, if Shawn (Utt) doesn’t get the revenue stream from a new restaurant or two, or a revenue stream from real estate taxes from a boundary change with the county within the next three or four years, this council is going to be sitting here making some really nasty decisions about really cutting back and public safety will no longer be an issue.  The issue will be simple survival,” Glenn said.

“We had this discussion last year, and it’s the reason I’ve drawn a hard line now,” East said. “We can find $150,000 to do raises and everything, but I’m being told we can’t find any money to do any sort of reduction? It’s lopsided. You can’t continue to go down this path in which you keep increasing expenses.”

“There are still some opportunities (for cuts in the budget),” Utt responded. “They will make things tight, but there are still opportunities.”

East said the 2.5 percent in cuts he requested was not a figure written in stone.

“But no matter what I suggest, or Mr. Radcliffe suggests, it’s impossible.  But when it comes to incorporating Phase Two of a pay study, we can do that. It’s unrealistic to continue that way. So, 2.5 percent was an exercise for staff to go look at the budget and come back with recommendations on what we can do.
“It’s actually not the council’s responsibility to try and find every dollar it can squeeze out of the budget,” East continued. “Staff has a responsibility to look at the budget and at least take guidance from council on where we’re trying to go. This council, at least half of it, has expressed concern with excessive spending. And now the mayor is included in that too. But we’re still looking at a budget that has the exact same numbers on it that it did six weeks ago.

“Go look at the budget and tell me what we can do,” East said. “There’s a number that we can afford to reduce the budget by and I want to know what that number is and it’s not zero.”

Glenn noted a budget work session is planned for Tuesday at 6 p.m.

“I’ve been told our employees are nervous. I can understand, but I’d like to assure our employees you don’t have to be nervous. This is more an exercise between council and our management team.  Phase Two of our salary study has been approved, so has the tier system and raises have been given. Healthcare is taken care of. What has Mr. East concerned is, while it’s done for this year, what are we going to do about next year. It has me concerned. I won’t be here, but the problem is we’re going to have to come to terms with several hard issues,” Glenn said.

Radcliffe told Glenn the budget matter would likely come down to his tie-breaking vote. “Because I will not support this budget,” Radcliffe said flatly, predicting a possible 3-3 vote.

“Ok,” Glenn responded.

East then offered a motion to direct town staff to develop by Tuesday an alternate budget that would reduce the general fund – excluding the Capital Improvement Plan – by 1.5 percent, or about $148,000. Radcliffe seconded the motion.

On the vote, Radcliffe, East and Penn voted in favor, while Goodman, Kidd and Councilman David Clark voted against. Glenn, voting to break the tie, cast his vote in favor of the proposal – passing it 4-3.

Then, Radcliffe proposed eliminating the Parks and Facilities Department from the budget proposal within the next 90 days and present a budget proposal on Tuesday reflecting the action.

Again East, Radcliffe and Penn voted in favor, while Clark, Goodman and Kidd voted against.  This time, however, Glenn voted against as well, sending the proposal to defeat, 4-3.

Finally, Penn motioned for the elimination of one vacant position from the police department in the current year’s budget. East seconded the motion; however, it too was defeated 4-3 with the same split among council and the mayor breaking the tie.