City works to balance budget

BUCKHANNON — Members of Buckhannon City Council on Monday struggled to make up a shortfall in a draft of the city’s 2017-2018 fiscal year budget, focusing specifically on paring down the police and fire department budgets.

Administrative and financial director Amberle Jenkins reviewed key points with Buckhannon mayor David McCauley and council members during Monday afternoon’s special budget session. Jenkins said proposed expenditures for 2017-2018 totaled $4,217,279.30, while expected revenues rang in at just $4,189,625, creating a shortfall of $27,654.30.

“I guess the bottom line of what I’m trying to say is when you look at the revenues that we have in the budget and the expenditures for what’s requested, I’m short $27,654,” Jenkins told council. “The good news is that retirement is not going to increase to 12.5 percent, it’s going to decrease to 11 percent, which will be a savings of over $55,000 for all departments.”

One potential cost-savings move would be to change the way members of the city fire and police departments are paid, Jenkins said. Under exemption 7(a) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, firefighters would not qualify for overtime pay rates until they work 53 hours in contrast to the standard 40. Jenkins said she didn’t know how many hours police department officers would have to work per week before they qualified for overtime pay rates.

If the FLSA was applied to just firefighter pay, the city would save approximately $28,000 a year, according to Jenkins. However, she believes department officials are requesting that the city make up the difference by giving them a bump in pay.

Councilman David Thomas said, “So in other words, they want us to make up the difference.”

Jenkins replied, “At least that’s what they said.”

Thomas said, “Yeah, I think that’s a wish.”

Jenkins suggested not approving police chief Matt Gregory’s request for two new part-time police officers as another way to close the gap in the budget.

McCauley added that perhaps the city should approve the purchase of only one new police cruiser instead of three, as Gregory had requested in his draft budget, which totaled $1.1 million.

“Instead of buying three, maybe we could just buy one or two, and we would save $30,000 basically,” the mayor said.

Jenkins remarked that just the salaries of the two part-time police officers totals $34,000, which the city would save should it decides not to institute those positions.

Councilman CJ Rylands, who cited a spike in traffic citations between 2013 and 2016 as counter to the city’s mission, said, “Adding part-time officers, that’s a permanent long-term expenditure. I don’t myself see why we’re trying to communicate a different expectation and yet we keep increasing their budget.”

City recorder Susan Aloi observed that Gregory justified his request for the two part-time officers by saying officers on duty need back-up, especially in dangerous situations, such as domestic incidents.

“I don’t think it was to give extra citations,” she said.

Councilman Robbie Skinner noted that there are three law enforcement agencies in Upshur County — the BPD, the Buckhannon detachment of the W.Va. state police and Upshur County Sheriff’s Department.

“The back-up thing, I feel like we have enough deputy sheriffs and state police officers,” Skinner said. “I don’t see how not having two part-time police officers is going to create a back-up problem.”

Skinner said that based on his research, cities are advised to allocate one police officer per every 700 residents.

“If that is the case, that brings us to 8.06, so we’re right in line with where we’re supposed to be,” Skinner said.

The BPD is staffed with 10 police officers, including Gregory, although for two-thirds of the year Sgt. Mark Stewart works as a PRO officer at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School.

McCauley reminded council that the purpose of the ordinance allowing for the hire of part-time police officers drafted under the Municipal Home Rule Pilot program was to create a drug task force.

“It wasn’t just for the purpose of having more regular patrols on the street, it was supposed to be special detail,” the mayor said. “If this council decides to appropriate money for those part-time officers, I would implore you — consistent with the mission that we’re trying to go with — we need to say, ‘This is how we want those hours expended for these things.’”

Aloi suggested asking the BPD for a revised plan detailing exactly what duties the part-time officers would undertake.

“Have we really made our expectations clear?” she asked. “I am just worried. The budget isn’t balancing — I think that’s regular that you always get more requests, and we have to make some decisions.”

McCauley raised the issue of the city’s liability exposure should council decide not to hire the two part-time officers.

“I do worry about our liability exposure when we have a particularly young officer who has been very vocal about telling us how uneasy he is about it in those instances when the state police shut down at midnight, and if you need help, you get it from Elkins,” McCauley said. “There are instances where there is one deputy sheriff assigned on duty for all of Upshur County, while we have one police officer in all of the city and that deputy gets dispatched to the southern end of the county and now something happens in the city and you need back-up and there is no back-up.”

Aloi said she wasn’t sure if the BPD was utilizing the “most efficient” means of scheduling.

“I wouldn’t dare tell them how to do it, but I’m just wondering if they’ve got things right,” Aloi said.

McCauley again brought up the idea of a public safety director that he first proposed in July 2016 as one part of a three-prong director approach.

“It would contain costs, help us be efficient financially while we have adequate supervision, staffing, scheduling and help us develop an emergency management plan — and we have a charter that says I’m supposed to be overseeing the police and the fire department, and I don’t have that skill set,” the mayor said. “I trust all of you, but I don’t think you have that skill set either.”

Rylands observed that the police and fire departments “adamantly” do not want a public safety director.

“So it’s up to us to first declare what our expectations are, and if they don’t want someone else, then we are being challenged to do our job, or your (the mayor’s) job,” Rylands said. “They have to be willing to work with us if they don’t want to work with someone we hire.”

McCauley said, “The perception is that we’re micromanaging, and part of that is because that’s what the law says — we supervise the police and fire department, and I’m not comfortable with that.”

In another effort aimed at balancing the budget, the mayor suggested that the city just replace one 2008 police cruiser instead of three. Jenkins said the city would save $26,000 if it took that route.

Thomas said he agreed — and also suggested the city no longer allow regular police officers to keep their cruisers 24 hours a day, an idea McCauley had initially proposed at a previous special budget session.

“I think we really need to sit down with Matt and say, ‘We think it’s time that you don’t have the car go back to the house,’” Thomas said. “We’ve got to start acting a little bit more efficiently than what we’ve done.”

The mayor concurred, although he said he believes supervisors — Gregory, in particular — should retain his police cruiser when traveling to and from work.

“I’m not picking on the police department; I think in every single department, we have vehicles going home that should not be going home,” McCauley said.

Aloi said, “I agree we’re not picking on the police department, but this is the largest section of the budget.”

The mayor said the police department’s proposed budget amounts to 27 percent of the city’s budget, while the fire department’s budget adds up to 21 percent.

Funding for both the police and fire departments has gone up in recent years. Overall, the police budget has increased by about $75,000 per year since 2013 — from $820,000 to their request of $1.1 million for 2017-18.

The fire department’s budget spiked in 2015 when the city expanded the number of firefighters on the payroll, going from about $503,000 to $627,000, not including the fire station payment. They are requesting $686,000 next year.

McCauley said he thought the city should table the proposition of two part-time officers and opt to pay for one cruiser instead of three.

“If we save like $32,000 or $33,000 in fire department overtime if we go with that 7(k) exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and we’re going to save roughly $10,000 to $12,000 in the police department, so if you save roughly $40,000 in overtime, and you table the discussion on the two part-time officers, that’s another $35,000 — that’s $75,000 in savings, and we buy one car instead of three, you’re talking some pretty serious money — you’re talking $95,000,” he said.

The mayor suggested the city use part of the amount saved to allocate $5,000 to Festival Fridays and $5,000 to the W.Va. Strawberry Festival.

“I’m trying to support things that bring people to town,” McCauley said. “And I don’t want us to leave this session thinking that things are bleak, honest to God, we’re in pretty good shape. My philosophy of government is we should be operating on a shoestring. If we’ve got money hand over fist, that’s a disservice to the people that are paying taxes and fees.”

Thomas said, “You have to be a curmudgeon. I was a curmudgeon at the college for years.”

Council scheduled a second general budget session for 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 15. It will reconvene with department supervisors at that time.

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