A $1.5 million clerical error discovered Monday in the city’s budget proposal left administration with less than 48 hours to fix it.
The city council will meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Trotter Convention Center to approve a budget for Fiscal Year 2022 — the latest date state law allows for municipalities to approve their annual budget. The version councilmen planned to consider, which was first presented in a public hearing Sept. 8, appeared to provide a $550,000 surplus. In reality, if that version had passed, the council would have unwittingly budgeted for a more than $1 million deficit.
Now, first-term Mayor Keith Gaskin and his staff are scrambling to overhaul and balance the budget in time for the council to approve it, putting in jeopardy plans to better equip the police and fire departments and tend to long deferred maintenance at several city facilities. The council had also planned to use part of the supposed surplus to fund employee raises next year.
“All that’s out the window, and so are the raises,” Gaskin told The Dispatch after discovering the error. “This is obviously not what we had hoped for. … What can I say? It’s alarming. It’s concerning. It’s unacceptable.”
How the error occurred
In the budget proposal prepared by Chief Financial Officer Deliah Vaughn and presented to the council last week, the summary sheet on the front of the budget packet showed projected revenues of $23,605,175 against expenditures of $23,055,410 — creating a surplus of $549,765. It also listed planned spending by department and compared those expenditures with what was budgeted for each department in FY 2021.
Behind the cover sheet were a more detailed revenue breakdown and spending breakdowns for each department.
Among those detailed spending breakdowns was $1,571,069 the city planned to spend for solid waste that was not shown on the summary sheet. The city actually collects more in fees for solid waste than it pays out. But while Vaughn included solid waste funds received in the city’s projected revenue for FY 2022, she inadvertently neglected to deduct the expenditures, interim Chief Operations Officer Mark Alexander Jr. told The Dispatch.
What’s more, Alexander said, he believes the same error occurred in the current year’s budget and wasn’t caught.
The city contracts with Golden Triangle Waste Services for garbage collection, paying the company more than $1.3 million this fiscal year.
“We for sure paid it,” Alexander said. “The issue is it wasn’t budgeted.”
Vaughn was hired as CFO in 2019. Alexander joined the city administration on an interim basis after Gaskin took office in July of this year.
Alexander said council discussion over employee pay raises led him to look closer at the budget over the weekend. He couldn’t balance it, he said, and couldn’t identify the problem.
On Monday morning, a reporter with The Dispatch interviewing Alexander about the budget proposal pointed out that expenses listed for solid waste in the packet were not included on the cover sheet.
Alexander confirmed Monday evening that was the discrepancy.
Vaughn had already submitted her notice to resign and take a job with the city of West Point prior to the budgeting error being discovered, Gaskin told The Dispatch. Her last day is Sept. 23.
The chopping block
Aside from planned employee raises that would likely have been based on tenure and work performance, some key equipment and facility upgrades are on the chopping block as a result of the error.
The proposed budget included $235,000 for new radios for the police department. The current analog equipment cannot communicate with other area agencies, including the city fire department, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office or rural fire departments.
It also included $170,000 to replace antiquated self-contained breathing apparatus units for firefighters that Alexander said had become a problem to use and service.
The original budget had money for replacing the roof at the Municipal Complex, roof and facility repairs at city parks, renovations at the Trotter and needed equipment for Public Works, among other things.
Both Gaskin and Alexander said they deemed those expenses necessary for city departments to effectively fulfill their roles.
“Anything and everything is on the table (to be cut) now,” Alexander said.
Gaskin said he wants to find a way to at least preserve the police radios and breathing apparatus for the fire department in the trimmed down budget, if possible.
“Those are two things that I would say are a life and death situation,” Gaskin said. “With the police radios, it’s never been acceptable to me that they’ve been allowed to operate that way.”
Alexander informed councilmen of the error by phone Monday evening.
Speaking to The Dispatch on Monday night, Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard, Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones and Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco declined to comment in detail on the matter, citing they had just found out about it and were still researching the error themselves.
“It’s concerning, but I’m sure we’ll have a balanced budget by our deadline,” DiCicco said.
None of the councilmen The Dispatch spoke with offered an explanation for why they didn’t catch the error in the packet they received Sept. 8.
Ward 1’s Ethel Stewart, Ward 2’s Joseph Mickens and Ward 3’s Rusty Greene did not return calls or messages from The Dispatch by press time.
Alexander offered the balanced budget prediction in the form of a guarantee.
“We can do it,” he said. “I mean, we have to. It’s just going to be unpleasant.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.