McCLEARY — The McCleary City Council unanimously approved a budget on Dec. 11 that lays off a police officer, eliminates the half-time police clerk position and does a series of other cuts, including eliminating the line item budget for the McCleary museum’s utility bills.
Despite the approved budget, Mayor Gary Dent says that the cuts won’t all happen at once. Pink slips won’t be issued right away, he said. And he backed off previous statements that he would also stop paying utility bills to the museum. The line item might have been eliminated, which may prompt the museum to close, but he says there still may be room in the budget for it elsewhere.
McCleary Chamber President Pauline Martin says that the Chamber is also going to take on the task of raising the $3,000 necessary to keep the museum’s utilities paid. Martin says it’s important for the city to retain the museum.
“It’s part of our identity,” Martin said. “No one wants to see the museum closed.”
Eliminating a police officer position leaves the city with two officers plus the police chief. Not enough, the chief says, for 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage in the city.
McCleary Police Officer Randy Bunch asked the mayor if he still plans to consolidate court services with the city of Elma.
Mayor Dent replied he wanted to begin negotiating that task with Elma city officials next year. If that were to happen, the city might eliminate the half-time court clerk position, as well. Dent said the city could save up to $30,000 a year by outsourcing the court services.
The budget also includes a 3 percent rate hike for city power, as well as 3 percent rate hikes for water and sewer and garbage rates, too, in accordance with the city’s contract with LeMay’s. The most popular plan, a 65-gallon tote picked up every other week, will go up $1.36 per month to $20.73 per month. All rate hikes are effective Jan. 1. Dent noted that the water rate hike is actually much lower than it has been in previous years. For five years, the water bills had been going up 22 percent each year to pay for a new well, the mayor says.
The budget does include raises based on union contracts as well as raises for exempt employees, Dent said.
The budget was approved on a 4 to 1 vote with Councilman Brent Schiller the only one to vote against it. Council members Larry Peterson, Jeff Catterlin, Bennie Ator and Tom Reed all voted for it.
Schiller questioned the transparency of the budget process. Catterlin said he only voted for the budget after receiving public guarantees from the mayor that the process for the 2015 budget would be done in an open and transparent way and involve much more citizen and council input.
Dent warned the council if they didn’t adopt his budget it would “create a crisis.” He had already threatened to veto any budget that didn’t meet his demands. Of course, any veto can be overturned with a super majority vote of the council.
Dent, who is battling cancer, made his first City Council appearance during the Dec. 11 meeting since introducing his revised budget for 2014 last month via memo in abstentia and introduced a series of draconian cuts that might be coming the city’s way for 2015 if residents don’t approve a potential property tax increase. Dent said he’s looking to put a ballot measure together for the fall ballot.
The mayor had said he’ll “dismantle” the police department, outsourcing the service to either Elma or the Sheriff’s Office. He’ll also close the library, cemetery, parks, outsource fire services and lay off more employees.
“I wish to apologize for all of the sensationalism that I’ve been causing,” Dent said during his public address, noting that the media had “helped.”
“My whole point in doing what I did is I wanted everybody to understand just how bad things were in McCleary,” Dent said. “I want to clarify that the city, itself, is not broke. …. Because of inter-house battles that I’m not going to comment on, it created some potential problems financially. So, I finally made my own mind up on what I was going to throw on the table, so I was going to say is I’m not going to impact the museum. I’m not going to impact the library.”
Dent said that in the next few months he would also be “evaluating the performance and value of other employees that may or may not be impacted if I need to make further layoffs. And that’s just the reality.”
Public Works Director Nick Bird remains on administrative leave for unknown reasons. Dent declined to go into details about why or whether Bird would be impacted by budget decisions in the future.
“My job, legally, is to keep the city’s budget balanced,” Dent said. “I’m not going to declare the city bankrupt. That will be a cold day in hell. So, I’m going to do what I have to do. I’m not trying to be nasty about it. I believe in having our own police force.”
There was some confusion and questions in the audience about why the sudden urgency in doing the cuts now when city revenue is about as stable as it’s been in years’ past.
“All of these cuts are extremely difficult for me to consider, as I value each and every one of the city employees and their hard work and dedication to this community,” Dent added in a new memo to the City Council. “We will start working on these options right after the New Year so we know the direction the City will take, long before the next budget season begins.”
“This budget happens to be happening, changing all in the last month or so; it’s all in a rush and in disarray,” one man in the audience told Dent, citing his memo statement to start sooner than later for the next budget. “I’m wondering why that wasn’t your approach this year.”
“Well, because this year we’re still seeing a good cash position,” Dent replied.
“What changed?” he was asked.
“What’s changed is that based on the expenditures we’re experiencing that based at the end of next year, the current expense fund wouldn’t be as in good a shape as it is now,” Dent replied. “I maintained things in the current expense budget for four years.”
“We’ve done that by borrowing from other funds to be made whole,” Councilman Schiller pointed out. “And now we’re going into next year with a deficit from borrowing more funds.”
Dent said that the city used to take $200,000 from its power utility fund and has brought that down to $55,000, which has been questioned by his staff.
“We’re cutting back on it,” Dent said.