Friday, May 18, was city council's first (and apparently only) meeting for public discussion of the City of Morristown's $32 Million dollar budget. It was a short discussion that ended abruptly with Paul LeBel's declaration that he was satisfied with the budget. LeBel called for a show of hands and five hands (of course) went up.
LeBel left the building to do other things, and sidekick Bob Garrett left the table to stand with "news"paper reporter Bobby Moore.
The meeting began with a brief discussion of non-profits. Paul LeBel had few comments about the budget with the exception of stating that he had voted against the county's tentative plan to gradually reduce non-profit donations. [LeBel has two local government jobs: He is a Morristown City Councilman and a Hamblen County Commissioner]
After listening to 30 minutes of discussion about topics such as non-profits, giving Tony Cox an extra 2-1/2% raise over and above the 2-1/2% he and all other employees will get, not refurbishing a police car, stormwater debt, the ESG grant, and Lakemoore odors, LeBel decided he had endured enough.
That's when LeBel stopped the budget deliberations by saying that he was satisfied with the budget and ready to bring it to a council vote. He got an "I agree" from Bob Garrett and Claude Jinks.
Mayor Thomas stated that he thought council should continue through the budget document. LeBel cut off further discussion by calling for a "show of hands" on approving the budget and putting it to a vote at the next council meeting.
The LeBel Five (Paul LeBel, Bob Garrett, Kay Senter, Claude Jinks, and Chris Bivens) raised their hands.
Brooks asked if they can continue through the budget. Garrett says we had all kinds of time to go through it and adds "It's not show-off time for me, Gene, I've read it."
Brooks says "you're a smart-aleck, Bob." Tony Cox and Kay Senter smile at the exchange.
City Councilman LeBel, with other things to do, packed up and left.
Claude Jinks confirms that the Five are through by telling Cox to put it on the agenda and we'll vote on it.
Jinks also reminded Cox to change the budget to give him (Cox) an extra 2-1/2% pay raise over and above the 2-1/2% pay raise already in the budget for Cox and all other employees.
After all of the above (the vote by a "show of hands" and two councilmembers leaving the table), Senter then asks the Mayor what he wanted to talk about.
Brooks comments that it is a shame when you can't sit down and go through a budget, and he asks "news" reporter Bob Moore to get it right in the paper this time.
Bob Garrett, standing by his buddy Bobby Moore, mockingly echoes Gene's words "this time."
Chris Bivens, who has already "voted" to approve the budget, then asks if there is something they need to discuss.
Mayor Thomas packs up his budget book and replies: "You guys have already voted and we'll let it roll at that if that's the way you want to do it, but I think it's very irresponsible not to go through the budget .... That's your job as a city official."
Chris, who has already voted and watched two of his buddies leave the budget table, then says to the Mayor if you have things marked, let's go through it.
The Mayor says, "I'm fine."
Bob Garrett, who can't contain his dislike and total lack of respect for the Mayor, then says of the Mayor: "He's irresponsible for walking out." [Apparently, if you are a friend of Bob, like LeBel, you can walk out and that's OK. If you are the Mayor and you walk out only after five other councilmembers have "voted," two have already left the table, and the City Administrator is being told to put the budget on the next council meeting for a vote, then you are "irresponsible."]
The Mayor says to Chris: "You've already voted. Thank you, though."
City Administrator Tony Cox said he would put the budget on the June 5 agenda for first reading with his extra 2-1/2% raise ($3000) for the great job that he has supposedly done in building up the city's fund balance/rainy day fund?
Some councilmembers point out that the City was "broke" three years ago and now has $5 Million in fund balance. Cox is getting all the praise and credit, but what did Cox do to put more money in the city coffers?
Cox's main contribution in "fixing" the City's finances and building up the fund balance was proposing a brand new $10/month garbage fee ($120/year) to take more money from the taxpayers and put it in city coffers. Not exactly a rocket science solution or evidence of brilliant management.
Cox proposed and council passed a new garbage fee in 2010 forcing residents to pay $120/year for garbage pick-up, a service which had formerly been provided through existing revenues/taxes.
The new garbage fee accounts for roughly $1.2 Million in extra revenue for the City every year. So it's really the citizens and taxpayers who have done a great job and have sacrificed to build up the city's fund balance. Cox just came up with the way to take that money from the citizens.
For their part in building the city's fund balance, the citizens should be getting a "bonus" in the form of a reduction of the garbage fee instead of Cox getting a bonus for coming up with a new garbage fee to extract more money from the citizens.
Then Cox just happened to come in at a time when the City Center debt was just about paid off and those debt payments would no longer have to be made. When the City Center debt was paid off, that freed up money to build the fund balance. But Cox had nothing to do with that.
Cox also benefitted from the cost-cutting measures put in place by interim City Administrator Lynn Wampler in the months before Cox arrived in February 2010. Total disaster in FY 2010 was averted by Wampler--not Cox. [One thing Cox did do was to continue some of Wampler's cost-cutting measures in postponing many equipment purchases and capital improvements again in FY 2011.]
Finally, Cox came in when sales tax revenues were starting to increase as a result of a slowly-improving local economy.
The City is better off today than it was when Wampler or Cox came in. But when you're broke--like the City was--there is no way to go but up.
When you solve the City's financial mess by taking more money from the residents (whether you call it a fee or a tax), that is not evidence of brilliant management. It's just evidence of making the taxpayers pay for prior mismanagement and for the complete failure of council to do its job of oversight.
The citizens foot the bill, and the politicians take the credit. The politicians pat themselves and their buddies on the back and pass out "extra" raises to someone whose major contribution to building up city reserves was to propose a new way (garbage fee) to take money from the citizens!