City Council Starts Whittling Budget Plan

City Manager Marcella Marlowe is busy ironing out a formal budget proposal for later this month after the City Council last week approved or disapproved portions of a preliminary budget presentation.
Still to come are the City Council’s thoughts on the Capital Improvement Program, discussion of which was delayed as the council meeting passed the six-hour mark Friday. The council plans to pick up this discussion at its meeting Wednesday, July 11, when it also will resume debate on upgrading a current administrative analyst position to assistant to the city manager.
The council met again this week, on Monday evening, to wrap up what was not addressed Friday, partly because the video camera recording the meeting Friday ran out of storage space. The Monday meeting took place after The Outlook’s press deadline, which was moved forward because of the July 4 holiday.
Although falling short of a complete proposal, Marlowe’s presentation, which included input from other department heads, consolidated what she felt the City Council expected for the next fiscal year with what she believed to be the reality of substantially overhauling the way City Hall operates on a day-to-day basis. The resulting list of line-item proposals included reductions from general fund expenditures, modified staffing positions and contracted assessments and studies.
“I’m offering you a budget that, in some places, has a very, very strong recommendation from me, and other places where I say the council has a job to set policy,” Marlowe told council members.
Notable ideas that have garnered support from the City Council include a citywide assessment of historical resources and an assessment and replacement program for sidewalks; potentially on hold are assessments for the city’s street medians.
Contentious topics included assessments of the condition of city-owned buildings — specifically the Stoneman Center — because the future of the Recreation Department is up in the air; the council has appointed an ad hoc committee to make recommendations on the department’s operations and programming. The cost of the proposed assessment is estimated to be $150,000.
“It will be more expensive to crawl through all of these buildings and figure out what we have,” said Parks and Public Works Director Michael Throne, who noted there is little to no documentation of several of the buildings. “This is taking the car to the mechanic to see what we have. There are more than a half-dozen buildings to look at.”
Some council members wished to wait until those results were reported Sept. 15 to make decisions regarding the buildings, many of which are used by the Recreation Department.
“We don’t know our needs,” Councilwoman Gretchen Shepherd Romey said. “We don’t know what we’re going to do with the Stoneman Center and the Recreation Department. For Director Throne to bring in an expert, it’s like inspecting a car before knowing whether we are even going to drive it. This is way putting the cart before the horse, in my book.”
A proposed study on the city’s medians is being kicked down the road while city staff members explore ways to reduce the proposed $75,000 price tag. Talt indicated he was willing to revisit this idea midyear as a potential budget adjustment.
“There have got to be other ways to do this other than scratching a check for $75,000,” Councilman Ken Ude said.
“I think, for the assessment of the medians, I can tell you: You just need water,” Vice Mayor Steven Huang said.
The City Council was agreeable to some large projects; there will tentatively be $265,000 set aside to assess and replace sidewalks as needed, with the help of trained volunteers who will report on sidewalks as they walk around town. A $170,000 line item to conduct a survey of about 4,200 homes for their historic potential also was approved. This would address one goal of this year’s historic preservation ordinance, which was to identify potentially historic homes for later evaluation.
“For us to not spend the money here is to gut the historical preservation ordinance that we just passed,” Shepherd Romey said.
“Right now, we have 70 houses on the market,” Huang added. “I think we should help the potential homeowners be able to make a decision.”
Council members joined Marlowe in acknowledging the herculean task of compiling a budget to address the multitude of policy changes enacted this calendar year with an administration mostly still in its first year of work and with three out of five City Council members still in their rookie year.
“There have been a lot of ‘holy crud’ moments this year,” Mayor Steve Talt said. “I appreciate that you [Marlowe] wanted to start building blocks this year. Unfortunately, we had to tear out the foundation first and rebuild from there.”
Ude, whose background is in heading private companies, bemoaned the budgeting process not including an operating plan or operating metrics that are used to determine and justify proposed expenses. He said he felt it left council members in the dark about how some costs were determined and added that he believed some of the designated savings were superfluous.
“The budget is the gospel,” he said. “This is the biggest thing that we do every year and I don’t want to play hide-and-seek to find what’s a real number. I’m concerned about the process. I think there are some claims for some savings that aren’t real. It does look like a lot of numbers were copied and pasted from last year.
“I think we’ve got a lot of work to do here and I’m not sure we’re going to be able to get there from where we are today,” Ude added.

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