BUCKHANNON — Despite heated discussions during a working budget session the previous evening, Buckhannon City Council on Thursday voted to unanimously approve the 2017-2018 fiscal year budget.
The vote came at council’s regular Thursday meeting, the evening after a working budget session when city residents packed into council chambers to lobby on behalf of the police and fire departments. At the Wednesday meeting residents asked that council prioritize public safety over downtown beautification and other events; they also asked council to grant all the budget increases requested by police chief Matt Gregory — primarily, that council fund salaries for two new part-time officers and that they pay for three new police cruisers. In the draft budget discussed Wednesday, the city did not fund the part-time positions and only paid for one police cruiser instead of three.
Council did not approve those increases, but mayor David McCauley said the city could consider hiring one part-time police officer and paying for another cruiser this summer, depending on how much money the city’s general fund had on hand at the end of the 2016-2017 fiscal year. If that happens, he said he would like the additional officer to be dedicated to drug-related issues.
On Thursday, city administrative and financial director Amberle Jenkins presented the budget to council for approval. Balanced at $4,209,930, the police department budget is $1,051,071 and the fire department budget totals $691,300. As Jenkins previously pointed out, spending on public safety accounts for 47 percent of the budget.
Jenkins had made changes requested by council the previous evening, including removing travel expenses of the mayor, council members, the treasurer and the city recorder, which totaled a savings of $8,000, and taking out the allocation of $3,500 for the Historical Landmarks Commission.
“The budget in the state of West Virginia – you have to balance your budget, which means the money you have on hand plus your receipts has to match your expenditures,” Jenkins said. “Our budget is for $4,209,930. A lot of it is determined by what you need, what you want, what the budget will sustain, sort of like your own budget. You have a family and they have a wish list and a want list and a needs list, and you have this much money, and you have to determine what you think is going to be most important.”
“The supervisors don’t always get what they want,” Jenkins added, “but actually they got most everything they put in for this time.”
McCauley said council had been poring over the budget for several weeks.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve put a lot of thought into this,” he said. “I would entertain a motion that we approve the 2017-2018 budget.”
Councilwoman Pam Cuppari made a motion to approve the budget, which was seconded by councilman Robbie Skinner.
Councilman David Thomas asked if the budget would be adjusted as the year goes on.
“We have no idea about the health insurance premium,” he remarked.
Jenkins said the city was likely to receive a 10 percent increase on its health insurance premium.
Councilman CJ Rylands asked Jenkins what the “surplus” usually was at the end of the fiscal year.
Jenkins replied that the term “carryover” was more appropriate than “surplus,” because the carryover or balance on hand is already built into the revenues side of the following year’s budget.
“It depends on how the economy does,” Jenkins explained. “One thing that keeps coming up is the time three or four years ago when we had a $1 million carryover. What happened is that we had a better economy, we had some oil and gas coming in, so our economy did a little better. We weren’t spending as much either, because we were holding back, waiting to do some projects. So then when we got past that year — and please don’t take this offensively — but council voted to hire three firemen and it also voted to give pay increases to the police department and then we did our paving. And that’s not free, so the next year our fund balance dropped a little bit because we’re using that. We want to spend our money on our citizens for the good of the city. We don’t want to just let it sit there.”
Thomas said, “But if you analyze the last five years, the trend lines are not good.”
Jenkins answered, “I’d like to take a look at it again this quarter, but we really noticed a difference in our hotel/motel fees.”
Council then voted unanimously to pass the 2017-2018 fiscal year budget. Council will lay the levy — i.e. approve tax rates — during a short meeting scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on April 18.
In other business, council also approved on second and final reading Ordinance 415, the storm water collection and management system ordinance. Thomas made a motion to approve it, which was seconded by councilwoman Mary Albaugh.
Rylands asked whether the ordinance, which will establish a comprehensive storm water drainage system in the city, was written in response to current or anticipated Environmental Protection Agency mandates.
City attorney Tom O’Neill said the mandates were expected.
Rylands replied, “And with the situation in current federal government, cutting the EPA’s budget by 30 some percent, would this be viewed as something that might not be mandated in the future?”
President Donald Trump’s administration plans to cut the EPA’s budget by 31 percent, although that is just a preliminary figure so far.
O’Neill said the mandate already exists, but he’s not sure when it will become applicable to the state of West Virginia.
“At that time, it becomes a question of enforcement, and we want to be in a position where we are prepared to enforce it,” O’Neill said.
Thomas chimed in, “We want to protect our watershed.”
McCauley said only 10 percent of the reason for passing the storm water system ordinance was due to expected EPA mandates.
“Overwhelmingly, it’s because of decades of the city dodging the issue, and independent of what the EPA may or may not do, we still have to do this,” the mayor said. “It’s hugely important. Since it costs so much to treat sewage water, we don’t want to treat those many millions of gallons which we’re trying to separate from this extraneous flow — storm water from sewage water.”
Finally, the city voted to move two regular meetings in May due to the W.Va. Municipal League meeting and the W.Va. Strawberry Festival. The May 4 meeting will be moved to Wednesday, May 3, and the May 18 meeting will be held on Tuesday, May 16.