BUCKHANNON — A large group of concerned citizens packed into Buckhannon City Council chambers Wednesday night for council’s final budget hearing ahead of Thursday night’s regular council meeting at which council voted on approving the 2017-2018 fiscal year budget prior to submitting it to the state.
Residents who spoke lobbied in favor of the Buckhannon police and fire departments, saying safety was a priority for them above all else. The outcry came in response to council comments made at recent budget hearings, at which council discussed not granting all the budgetary requests of BPD chief Matt Gregory. Specifically, Gregory had requested that council increase the police budget to fund the salaries for two part-time officers and allocate enough money to pay for three new police cruisers. Council additionally discussed only allowing the chief and not regular officers to drive their cruisers to and from work, but did not take any official action on the topic.
At council’s last budget hearing Feb. 27, members discussed balancing a draft of the budget by not funding additional police officers and only paying for one new cruiser, rather than three. Council also discussed reducing firefighter overtime by subscribing to the 7(k) exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows for firefighters and police officers to be compensated at a higher overtime rate only after working 53 hours rather than the usual 40.
In accordance with council’s wishes, financial and administrative director Amberle Jenkins adjusted the police department budget to keep just the current 10 officers and fund only one new cruiser. No adjustments were made to firefighter salaries or overtime, however.
At the outset of Tuesday’s meeting, mayor David McCauley expressed surprised at the packed room, saying, “This is a working budget session; we’re trying to get the 2017-2018 budget done. In my 34 years with the city of Buckhannon, this is the first time we’ve ever had a guest at one of these meetings, so I’m a little curious as to why we have generated such enthusiasm as we go through the budget process. It’s beyond my realm of realization.”
Among the citizens who spoke was resident DeAnna Grogg, who said she was “extremely concerned” about the budgeting for the police and fire departments.
“Those are the two main places one cannot afford to cut,” Grogg said. “I have concerns with police officers with police officers not being able to take cruisers home. The two areas that we need not to cut are our police department and our fire department for everybody’s safety.”
Council, however, has never suggested cutting the police or fire budgets this year — they have only discussed limiting increases. Funding for police and firefighters has gone up significantly over the last five years, causing council to consider additional fees and taxes to pay for those expenses. Grogg said crime has risen since she moved to Buckhannon years ago, noting that the city has “a major drug problem.” She also said council was too concerned with downtown beautification and not concerned enough with safety.
Resident Dorinda Grumbine echoed Grogg’s sentiments.
“If it’s our money that you’re managing for us, we the people want you to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it would be embarrassing for all of us if we have to put up a Go Fund Me account for our police and fire departments,” Grumbine said. “We want our money, every penny of it, to go for our safety so our children and our seniors and everyone in our community is safe. After that, do what you’re doing and do it well because you have. But if we don’t have police protection or fire protection, what good is it to have art downtown or a place to walk our dogs?”
Scott Preston — a former council member who is currently serving for a 90-day stint as a temporary paid firefighter — expressed concerns with council’s discussion about subscribing to the Fair Labor Standards Act exemption, which calls for police and firefighters to be paid at an overtime rate only after 53 hours, rather than 40 hours. Under a model recommended by chief Jim Townsend, hourly rates would be adjusted upwards to minimize the impact on annual salaries, Preston said. Although council discussed it, they did not take any action to change the way emergency personnel overtime is paid.
The police department budget adds up to $1,051,071, while the fire department budget is $691,300. McCauley pointed to a pie chart assembled by Jenkins which shows that 47 percent of the city’s general fund budget goes to public safety — i.e. the police and fire departments.
For comparison, street department salaries amount to only $344,000 — about one-third of what is spent on public safety salaries.
“To characterize this council or the previous council as not supporting the police or fire department … from a financial perspective, I think this council has appropriately put the funds into our police and fire department,” the mayor said. “We do have some additional things that the police department wants, we have some things the fire department would like to see in their budget, and that’s why we’re putting the pencil to these things, trying to figure out what we can pay for.”
Councilman David Thomas said rumors that the firefighters were going to get a 10 percent salary cut were “simply not true.”
“If anything, council has been adding resources to the police department and the fire department over the last couple years,” Thomas said, citing the addition of Prevention Resource Officer Sgt. Mark Stewart. “We have a budgeting process. Not everybody’s going to get what they want, that’s just the way budgeting processes go.”
Councilwoman Pam Cuppari said she agreed with the residents that attended Wednesday’s meeting that safety should be council’s top priority. Cuppari also called the policy of police officers having to leave their vehicles at the Public Safety Complex “going backwards.”
Both city recorder Susan Aloi and councilman Robbie Skinner pointed out that it’s council’s responsibility to ask questions.
“It is our responsibility to ask questions,” Skinner said. “That is what we are supposed to do. No one in this community should be happy with us if we just accept everything that comes to us and just put a stamp on it and move forward. We can’t do that because that’s not being fair, that’s not doing the right thing by our citizens by our citizens, by us, by you all, our employees.”
McCauley suggested that council wait to see what its balance on hand is at the end of the current fiscal year, and then in July reconsider Gregory’s requests. Specifically, the mayor said council could then perhaps decide to purchase a second cruiser and hire one part-time police officer.
“If come July 1, our carryover is better than what we’re budgeting, I think a couple of the first allocations would be the purchase of a second cruiser while we continue to look at this comprehensive true-lease plan for all city vehicles — we think that’s going to save us a lot of money — and secondly, that we consider the hiring of one part-time police officer,” McCauley said. “However, I believe that one part-time officer should be dedicated to drug investigations. Let’s wait and take that up until we get into July.”
The mayor also said there was “not one scintilla of support for us cutting salaries for any firefighter or police officer.”
“Not one penny is being cut,” he added. “Police officers and firefighters make more right now than they did this time last year.”
In other budget news, council asked Jenkins to remove travel expenses for council members, the mayor, the treasurer and the city recorder, resulting in a savings of $8,000 and also to take out $3,500 under the Historical Landmarks Commission because council is not funding an Americorps position in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Council also allocated $5,000 for a dog park, but declined to add an additional $10,000 to the Upshur County Development Authority’s budget, leaving it at $30,000 instead of the requested $40,000.
On Thursday, Jenkins said the budget was balanced at $4,209,930 after making those changes.