Wednesday, June 01, 2011

June 1, 2011 City Councilmembers LeBel and Senter at Odds over Council "Travel" and "Slush Fund"

Yesterday, city council met in a brief special called meeting to address three items after which there was a short budget workshop.

In the special called meeting, the City Council voted to appeal U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer's decision in the Patricia Stephens, et al v. City of Morristown case to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The City will incur still more legal expenses in appealing the Judge's decision, but at least one goal is apparently to get the appeals court to eliminate or reduce the attorney fees that the City has to pay to the Plaintiff's attorney Gary Davis. See Judge Greer's decision on attorney fees here.

In action related to Judge Greer's order that the City rehab the Witt sewer line, the council voted to obtain two easements in South Hamblen County. One easement (Wallace Properties) will be obtained by agreement. The other (Kenneth McClanahan) will be taken by eminent domain if an agreement is not reached in the next few days.

In the budget workshop, there was heated discussion over two items in the city council's budget. Paul LeBel questioned the council's proposed travel budget of $15,000. [Update: The proposed travel budget for 2012 is $15,000 up from $8,000 in estimated travel expenses for 2011 and up from $2,909 that was actual travel spending in 2010]  LeBel said that, as a businessman, he travels on 'his own dime." He also pointed out that county commissioners do not have a travel budget.  [LeBel serves on the county commission AND city council.]

When he mentioned that Councilmember Kay Senter has spent $22,000 on travel in the last four years, the temperature in the room began to rise. Kay countered that she and Claude Jinks had discovered a pipe bursting technology on one of their travels and had brought news of this technology to the City's engineering department saving the City lots of money.

LeBel stated that if the engineering department didn't know about this important engineering technology on its own then the City needs new engineers.

Kay then got to the real reason that the travel budget is so high and why it is so important to her. She said that she is in line, as current vice-president, to become president of the Tennessee Municipal League Board in the coming year.

[LeBel may not have known about Kay's TML position, but in the last couple of years, she has mentioned her soon-to-be-coronation as president of the TML Board a number of times. She has also noted on a number of occasions that her city taxpayer-paid travel has helped her to meet with leaders of other cities and work her way into her current position of leadership in TML.  Becoming president of TML is extremely important and significant for Kay.]

LeBel said that's great, but he still encouraged council to travel on its own dime.  The conversation went back-and-forth for several minutes with Mayor Danny Thomas criticizing LeBel for bringing Senter's name into the mix.

Somehow, you have to wonder about the importance of the Tennessee Municipal League being headed by a councilmember from Morristown who sat by while Morristown's finances burned, money was illegally shifted, taxes were raised, garbage fees were started, sweetheart contracts were approved, and on and on.

But nevermind all that, Kay Senter can put down that she is the first or nearly first head of TML from the eastern area of the state! 

Maybe instead of lots of "travel" with TML and other groups, councilmembers should have been tending to the City of Morristown's finances instead of rubber-stamping whatever was proposed.

LeBel also caused consternation when he mentioned the city council's $100,000 "slush fund."  "Slush fund" is LeBel's wording and just happens to echo my characterization of this line item which was added to the City's budget by Tony Cox last year.

Kay immediately defended the $100,000 "grants and subsidies" line item but admitted that maybe it should be called "contingency" instead. She said it helps council make "tough" decisions in the budget year when new items come up. 

What is really does is make what should be tough decisions on extra spending easier for council. Instead of having to make a decision to go back and pull from its fund balance to authorize additional mid-year spending, City Administrator Tony Cox comes to council and says that buying this or that is no problem because you can take it from your "grants and subsidies" line item.  Every time Tony came to council last year and said that the extra spending was "no problem," council went along. No tough decisions there.

LeBel might have succeeded on one item. There will be an examination of the Mayor's Diversity Task Force line item. The Diversity Task Force was created under former Mayor Sami Barile.

More later on how Councilman Chris Bivens saved the City $120,000 just by checking out Administrator Cox's proposed equipment purchases.

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