Finance Committee meeting prompts questions

Friday, October 12, 2012

Members of the Blytheville City Council Finance Committee met Thursday afternoon to review the city's statement of revenue and expenditures for the year and discuss the 2013 budgeting process, but were quickly derailed by comments from the audience and other financial matters facing the city.

A copy of 2012's statement of revenues and expenditures was given to committee members to look over before the next meeting. Chairman Monte Hodges said he wanted them to come up with ideas for ways to cut and otherwise refine the budget before it is presented to Mayor James Sanders, who was said to be in the process of meeting with city department heads over their proposed budgets for 2013.

"I want us to go over the 2012 budget," he said, "and think of things we can tweak ... to see what kind of cuts we may want to look at, or changes we want to do to the budget. I made a list one year of things we might want to look at cutting out, but it never did come to fruition. There are some things we may need to talk about renegotiating for 2013. We know we're going to have to increase on legal fees and gas prices, but there may be some stuff we can look at to talk about taking out. We'll put a list together, I'll compile it and give it to the mayor, let him look at it."

Hodges and City Attorney Mike Bearden both said they had received a letter from the city's municipal league attorney with a proposed settlement for the city's significant jail fee debt owed to Mississippi County, but neither were willing to discuss numbers at the meeting because the proposal is not yet agreed upon.

"We got a letter from our municipal league attorney," said Hodges. "It's some type of agreement on the jail fee issue, but it's just a proposal, nothing is etched in stone. We'll have to decide if we want to agree to that and get it behind us. We have some fees coming in that need to be dedicated to the jail fees, but I don't know what we've collected up to this point, I've spoken to the mayor about it. We're working on verifying the fees to make sure that is exactly what we owe."

City council candidate Carol White, who was in attendance, asked if the city had a number, either confirmed or unconfirmed, that they think they owe the county, but no answers were readily available.

Police Chief Ross Thompson said he reviewed the fees and forwarded any recommendations for reductions or changes for charges that may not be the city's to the Finance Department, but was unaware what figures were produced at that point.

"We've looked at some figures recently, and I have looked at the settlement negotiation," he said. "But I would like to talk to our municipal league attorney before I make a comment on that -- but I have seen the proposal."

"I spoke with LaVera [Kuykendall, city finance director] about looking at the jail fee issue," said Hodges, "and how we're going to stay on top of that once it's negotiated, making sure our fines and forfeitures money is getting designated. A couple of months ago we were talking about sending it to them. I guess we're not now until things are settled. This has been an issue since I can remember, and it's steadily increasing. We need to get this settled because the county needs their money too -- we're reading in the paper that they're having shortfalls."

Missy Langston spoke up and asked is the city was making any payments on current jail fees, aside from the amount in dispute.

"I don't know if everything is on hold," said Hodges.

"I was told that everything is on hold until the settlement was made," said Kuykendall.

White asked exactly how much the city owes.

"We were given a list of what was payed," White said. "I know it's debatable, but what do we owe as far as the city is concerned?"

Hodges and Kuykendall said that figure was not included on the expenditures and revenues sheet, so they did not know, and White countered that that number seemed like one that would be needed for the 2013 budgeting process.

Thompson offered some figures from bills received from the county, which he has been tracking since 2006.

"I can tell you what we've been billed for, but I don't know how much of that is in dispute. We were billed $507,000 in 2011, and so far in 2012, our last bill was in July, we were at $261,000. This is a gross dollar amount we are billed. We make notes if there are questions about the amounts, then send them to finance," he said.

Kuykendall said that she doesn't know if the city has paid on the 2011 bill at all, that she did not handle those numbers.

The proposed 2013 budget for the Sanitation Department was reviewed. The proposal included a savings which would be incurred if the city switched to a system of leasing garbage trucks. The proposal packet included revenues and expenditures for 2011, and proposed numbers for 2013, but no figures for 2012.

When asked by Langston where the 2012 numbers were, Hodges said he had been told that the department didn't have year-to-date numbers for 2012.

According to the profit and loss statements provided, the Sanitation Department had a revenue surplus in 2011 of $6,592. It projected, under the new leasing program, a surplus of $500,086 in 2013.

Langston questioned the figures, saying that she thought there were outstanding bills at the end of 2011, where the document shows a surplus. She also expressed concern that the city should be considering a lease when it is still involved in contract negotiations with Knight's Disposal. Committee members agreed that no decisions should be made until they learned the current status of those negotiations, but that if leasing could save money the choice was clear.

"We need a legal opinion on leasing our own trucks," said Hodges. "But even if we're saving $200,000 or $300,000 to go back into the general fund, that would be a no brainer as opposed to the way we're doing it now."

"I agree with what you're saying," said Langston. "But last month, what we came down to was that the lease would end up costing us $17,000 a month, so we just started doing the math on replacing tires and how much we would save by hauling our own garbage. We only came up with savings of $15,000 per month, which would allow us to pay the lease, but that's still $2,000 short every month. But we can't make a decision until we find out about the contracting and the law. I'll get with the mayor and talk about this."

When the discussion returned to the 2013 budget, Langston pointed out that some inequity is growing within the Sanitation Department when it comes to revenues and expenditures.

"Tipping fees have gone up, but residential trash fees have not gone up," she said. "People don't want their fees to go up, so we may need to go to every other week pickup. If everyone recycled, we wouldn't have as much trash to pick up. If we don't raise our rates but tipping fees continue to increase, we will have to do something."

Lorrain Mitchell, another city council candidate in attendance, raised questions about several issues, including a motion passed by the Council in 2009 which would offer retirement to any mayor that serves at least 10 years, once they reach the age of 55.

"The old administration is already in his 55th year," she said. "Are we paying his retirement out of the general fund? That's an ordinance that needs to go away, real fast, because the general fund can't even cover the payroll, let alone somebody that only does 10 years of service. There's something wrong with that, when you don't even have money to pay payroll. How many people get to retire after 10 years?"

Shirley Overman pointed out that to qualify for the benefits, a mayor would have to be elected three times, technically serving 12 years.

"It doesn't matter how many times they're elected," said Mitchell. "The city needs to go back and change that.

Another question was asked by White, about whether or not the city has a reserve fund.

"Ms. White knows we don't have a reserve fund," said Hodges.

"He might not know, but I do," said Bearden. "We don't."

The meeting was adjourned at this point, with members agreeing to look over the city's financials and come up with suggested cuts, and Langston planning to get accurate figures on the Sanitation Department from the mayor's office. The committee will meet again at 3:15 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8 in the District Courthouse.

sharris@blythevillecourier.com