Pulaski Town Manager Shawn Utt on Tuesday presented to council a second budget proposal for the 2018-19 fiscal year – one in which spending is cut by 1.65 percent or about $160,000.
Utt’s budget proposal was in response to direction from council a week earlier. Mayor Nick Glenn broke a 3-3 tie and voted in favor of a motion by Vice Mayor Greg East, which directed Utt to formulate an alternative budget with 1.5 percent across the board cuts to save about $150,000.
While Utt’s first budget proposal was balanced with no tax increases, East led an effort along with councilmen Jamie Radcliffe and Lane Penn to cut expenses and halt what he termed a yearly trend of increased spending.
Tuesday, Utt said he had met with the town’s department heads and came up with the cuts sought by a majority on council.
Included in the new budget plan is the reduction of one patrol officer position in the Police Department, which is currently vacant, and elimination in December of the Parks and Facilities Department.
Glenn commended Utt and the department heads on their work to reduce the budget, calling the review of the budget “long overdue” going back several years and councils.
Glenn, whose time as mayor comes to an end June 30, urged council to follow through on a line item review of the town’s budget – something he has promoted since becoming mayor two years ago.
“It will take time and be tedious, but it’s what is going to have to be done in the face of what’s coming down the road,” Glenn said about expected increases the town will face in expenses such health care and others.
Council has discussed holding an extra meeting during those months in which there is a fifth Tuesday and do nothing but discuss the budget – one department and one line item at a time.
At this point, Dave Hart, Parks and Facilities Director, asked Glenn if he could address council.
Unhappy about the new budget’s plan to eliminate his department by December, Hart questioned council on how things have gotten to where they are.
“Somehow we went in three weeks from a balanced budget with a fully funded Parks and Facilities budget, to a half-year for my position and a plan in which we’re not sure where everything else is going and what’s going to go on,” Hart said.
“I feel like after 33 years of working in this job, I’d like to have an explanation as to how we got to this point,” he continued.
Hart said he had talked to Utt about an upcoming retirement incentive plan and that he appreciates the town is looking at something light that.
“It’s very generous,” he said, adding, “It’s evident my time is done here probably, and I hate to say that. I hate to go out this way. I probably will, if we can work out the details, take you up on that.”
Hart said, however, he is more concerned about the future of the town’s parks and playgrounds.
“I cannot see why, in this day and age, we would have an elimination of parks, playgrounds and open spaces – the things people want and need. Whatever your thinking is going forward, would you please address that and please make it a priority,” Hart said to council.
Hart noted that, last week, East had compared the size of Pulaski’s Police Department to that of other communities in the area. Hart said the same could be done with parks.
“Every one of those, with the exception of Pearisburg, has a fully funded and very large – much larger than the amount you’re looking to cut out now – parks and recreation departments,” he said.
East responded that he appreciates Hart’s service – service that stretches back to when he arrived in Pulaski in 1985.
“From my standpoint,” East said, “It’s strictly budgetary.”
He said that over time, through no fault of Hart’s, the town’s Parks and Recreation Department had become Parks and Facilities, as the county took over all recreation activities and the Shelor group had purchased Calfee Park.
Gatewood, now being operated for the town by an outside vendor, was a “$170,000 hole in the budget,” East said.
East explained that council is dealing with a budget with rising expenses and shrinking revenues. “I hope it’s going in the opposite direction now, but it becomes a concern not only for Parks and Facilities, but for the whole town.”
East said that’s where he is coming from.
“It’s not a personal decision,” he said. “It’s easier to do nothing. We’re elected to represent 9,000 citizens and we must do what we feel is right for them.”
Hart responded that he could understand East’s point, however, he felt council is “Taking drastic action that isn’t necessary – at least for this year.”
East said he believes it best to make “a mild correction now than a drastic correction later.”
Hart asked council if their plan is to take all aspects of the Parks and Facilities program and continue it.
Councilman Joseph Goodman responded that if the town’s plans include closing or not taking care of the town’s parks or not making sure the quality of life citizens enjoy is protected, “I won’t support it.”
“What we’re doing with this proposal, I’m not happy with. I don’t agree with it, but I’m only one of six on council,” he said.
Utt noted that a plan must be put together to transition the work of the Parks and Facilities Department in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the town’s parks and playgrounds.
“I think there’s some opportunities to combine some things,” Utt said. He commended Hart on coming up with a reasonable transition plan for combining a few of Parks and Facilities’ chores with those of Public Works.
“I think we can take advantage of and improve on what we have (in parks and playgrounds) rather than take a step back,” Utt said.
Council will hold another work session on the budget Tuesday at 6 p.m. when it will discuss the Parks and Facilities issue as well as a buyout program for employees eligible to retire.
Approval of the budget will be on the agenda, but council could table a final vote on the spending plan until its next meeting on June 26.
The budget must be approved by June 30.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot