After some confusion, the East Ridge City Council approved an $11.9 million budget for fiscal year 2015-16, Thursday night, during its regular meeting.
Council members voted unanimously to pass Ordinance 989 on second reading, initially thinking they were setting the property tax rate. Then, after the council took up an ordinance dealing with budget amendments to this year’s budget, Mayor Brent Lambert realized that the council had tabled a “public hearing” on the first reading of the 2015-16 fiscal year budget.
City Attorney Hal North then advised that the council needed to rescind its vote on Ordinance 989 and then call for a public meeting, that he assured them was properly advertised in early June. Mayor Lambert hastily opened a “public meeting” on the budget. After no citizens rose to speak on any budget issues, the hearing was closed.
Then the council once again addressed next year’s budget. Councilman Jacky Cagle pointed out that the budget document that he had in front of him was still including the Parks & Recreation Department in a stand alone fund of about $1 million. He double-checked that Parks & Recreation would be returned to the General Fund.
Cagle discussed amending the budget by giving full-time employees a $250 Christmas bonus and part-time ones a $125 bonus. He also wanted to give an across the board raise of 25 cents per hour to all employees. Staff broke out calculators and after a few minutes decided that adding these expenditures to the proposed budget would increase it by about $100,000. That money would be taken from the reserve fund to balance revenues and expenditures, officials said.
“We brag on our employees at just about every council meeting,” Cagle said.
“So we need to do something for them,” Councilman Denny Manning quickly added.
Vice-Mayor Marc Gravitt questioned the move. He was told that employees received a raise last year. A consensus of council, staff and people in the audience was that city employees had received raises in three of the last five years.
“I’ve got nothing against our employees,” Gravitt said, “but can anyone here tell me what private business gives employees raises every year? We’ve got to start watching our nickels and dimes because we’ve got to build back up our reserve fund.”
That statement prompted Manning to comment on the city spending $100,000 over a three-year period on a Birmingham-based consulting firm to help market the city’s economic development potential.
“If we are watching our nickels and dimes, why did we get those women from Alabama doing that work?” he asked.
This sparked a little back and forth between the two city officials that became somewhat testy, which prompted some comments from audience members.
Mayor Lambert said the councilmen had a difference of opinion and “I would also like to have less commentary from people out there (in attendance).”
The council also took action on excluding three dozen businesses from the Border Region Act. Two separate resolutions were passed unanimously naming the businesses by street address and Hamilton County property tax parcel numbers. A third resolution was passed naming the same business only by parcel number.
City Treasurer Thad Jablonski said by excluding the businesses the city would get more money back from the state under the Border Region Act.
The council spent almost as much time discussing helping East Ridge High School revamp its dilapidated baseball field as it did on the budget. Parks & Recreation Director Stump Martin told the council that about $5,000 to $10,000 of dirt would be needed to put onto the fields. Manning asked why the county commissioner couldn’t take “some of the $500,000 they get” and address the deficiencies.
A person from the audience then asked how the state Attorney General’s recent opinion prohibiting counties using money from other sources outside of school funding to help with improvements to things like athletic fields, and if it might pertain to the City of East Ridge.
Attorney North then read a summary of the opinion and believed that it was specific only to county governments.
It was then pointed out by Martin that the high school did not have the equipment to maintain improvements to the field even if they were made. The council decided to table the measure.
Mayor Lambert then broached the issue of giving outgoing City Manager Andrew Hyatt “vacation/terminal pay.”
“We’ve got a little bit of an issue here,” Lambert said. He asked Attorney North for guidance because the city apparently discontinued the practice of paying employees hired after June 2012 for accumulated leave. North said there was an “ambiguity” in this policy and the leave buy back policy the city continues to practice.
A distinction was made between “leave buy back” _ the policy of writing a check to employees who have more than 320 hours of accumulated leave on the books and have accumulated unused vacation _ and an employee who is leaving employment due to retirement or termination.
Councilman Cagle said the city has an ordinance that clearly states that accumulated time cannot be bought back by the city. He was against the idea of giving Hyatt any additional compensation.
Hyatt, who will leave the city effective July 1 to take a job in Florida _ sat quietly for much of the meeting. After Cagle’s remark, Hyatt said, “leave buy back” is relevant to those people who remain employed with the city, not those departing gainful employment.
Hyatt then said that the June 16 City Council meeting, during an executive session “in an illegal meeting, I think,” Cagle wanted Hyatt to leave immediately. Hyatt said his resignation letter submitted that day was effective on July 24.
Cagle then made a motion to “pay this man his four weeks.”
It is not clear how much pay that four weeks represents.
Lambert then led a discussion about how the council might proceed concerning the hiring of a new city manager. “I know of one person on staff who wants to apply,” he said. “Do we want to immediately begin looking?”
Lambert said that the International City/County Manager’s Association has a program where retired city managers are temporarily assigned to a city as an interim. He said the benefit of that program is that the person won’t play favorites. He quickly pointed out that the comment was not aimed at either Hyatt or Fire Chief Mike Williams, who has been chosen as an “acting” city manager beginning on July 1.
Lambert said a third “viable” option is to wait and “cruise.”
Councilman Manning said he would like to make a motion to “cruise” for the next few months.
“Or until (Mike) starts hollering ‘Uncle,'” Councilman Larry Sewell said.
Prior to the regular meeting, the council had a “special called meeting” to select an insurance broker and policy for next year. The deadline for the selection is June 30.
The council heard proposals from officials representing Benefits Inc., the broker that Hyatt hired two months ago; JMD Group, the firm that Hyatt fired; HCS and Insurity Group.
John Davis, the principal of JMD Group, spoke last. He said he had been the broker for East Ridge for many years. He said he had worked with nine city managers in East Ridge over the last 20 years.
“I don’t know what I did to get fired, Andrew, but I would like to continue to work for the city,” Davis said in conclusion.
Davis’ firm quoted a price from the city’s current insurance carrier, BlueCross/Blue Shield of $1.198 million, a savings of about $500,000 over what the city paid for insurance this past year.
Cagle made a motion to go with JMD, Sewell seconded the motion and the council unanimously voted to go with JMD.
“John has served us and served us and served us,” Cagle said.