Wednesday, June 13, 2007

TOP STORY >>Spending remains key issue in Cabot

Leader staff writer

Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams was called on the carpet Monday night to explain to the city council budget committee why he bought savings bonds to recognize good employees without talking to them first.

Alderman Eddie Cook, chairman of the budget committee, explained why the committee was troubled by the expenditure despite the fact that the mayor had not gone over the budget by paying $2,000 for the bonds.

“We heard about this on the back end, and the budget committee wants to know where the money is coming from,” he said.
Committee members also did not support the mayor’s plan to pay $50 toward the electric bill for a literacy program that is opening in the city, and they asked how the city can pay about $16,000 for a new Website when they keep hearing that the city can barely afford to pay its bills.

Whether the city will help with the electric bill for the nonprofit literacy group will go before the council for further discussion.

The most outspoken during the more than two-hour long meeting were Aldermen Teri Miessner and Becky Lemaster.
Both repeatedly told the mayor the city didn’t need to spend money for extras when the budgets in the fire department and police department are stretched thin.

The mayor didn’t cut any positions in those departments in January, but he said he would not fill any vacated positions.
He recently reconsidered that stance and has told the fire chief to hire three firefighters to replace those who quit. To help fund those positions, three more city employees have been laid off: Donna Grimes, the mayor’s assistant; Ann Webb, the fire department secretary, and Dale Walker, the budget manager.

Williams said the cuts would free about $150,000 a year to pay the salaries and benefits of the new firefighters.
The three employees were told Friday that they were no longer needed, the mayor said. Miessner said after the Monday committee meeting that she had heard nothing about it. Lemaster told Williams during the meeting that she had spoken to the city’s firefighters and police officers and they would rather have more backup than a chance at a $1,000 savings bond four times a year.

“Doing without a recognition program until we get legs under us is part of doing business,” said Miessner, a banker. “If the money isn’t there we don’t need to spend it. Why are we finding money to reward our employees if we can’t pay our bills?”
Alderman Ken Williams, a lawyer, told Williams he thought recognizing employees was probably a good idea, but he was puzzled by the way the winners are selected. Instead of being selected by their bosses, they are selected by fellow workers.
Much of the conversation during the meeting centered on the numbers in the financial reports the members receive. Though the committee members said the reports are difficult to read because they are not consistent from month to month, it is clear that the city does have some money in savings. And near the end of the meeting, Miessner got to the crux of her beef with the mayor.

The mayor should stop saying the city has no money when there is money in savings, she said.

Clerk-Treasurer Marva Verkler, who, with Walker gone, is now in charge of the city’s finances again after more than four years, said later that the city has $280,000 in reserve, about enough to make payroll for one month. Williams conceded that the city’s finances are not as bad as he tends to make them out to be.

“I want to paint it a little dimmer than I hope it is,” he said, and explained to the committee that he treats the city’s finances as he always has his personal finances. He said he lives below his means and puts as much away as possible.

“Savings is just as important as paying the electric bill to me,” he said. But he also pointed out that even though the city is making payroll and paying bills, there are no capital expenditures budgeted for 2007.

The city is not buying anything this year. He said later that the city had already contracted for the new website before he took office.

Williams said he believes it is more important now than ever to recognize city workers for their efforts because with budget cuts, city employees must work harder than ever.

So far he has bought four $1,000 savings bonds for $500 each. The employees in each of the city departments – administration, public works, fire and police – voted on the recipient. Even without the approval of the committee, the mayor can continue to give the bonds every three months to reward city workers for their extra effort.

He said the money for the bonds would come out of the general fund, not from the department budgets.
“Recognition is a pat on the back. Reward has monetary value,” he told the committee.

Williams said after the meeting that his job as mayor is to take care of the day-to-day operation of the city. He’s doing that, he said, but if the council wants more information he will try to provide it.