Mayor Keith Gaskin began Wednesday’s final public hearing for the Fiscal Year 2022 budget contrite.
A $1.5 million clerical error discovered in the original version of the budget presented to the city council a week before sent city administration back to the drawing board. While the final draft before the council was balanced, Gaskin characterized it as “not healthy” and with “not a lot of cash flow.”
He first took full responsibility for the error — discovered Monday, leaving the city 48 hours to fix it before the state-mandated deadline for the council to approve it — and apologized.
“We’re back today in a very different place than we were last week,” Gaskin said. “There’s no one to blame for that but me. I am the mayor. My eyes were the last ones to see the budget before it went to the council. It’s my responsibility to make sure the budget was in place properly for them to review and make comments on. … There should be no finger-pointing at the council.
“It can be intimidating to try to wade through a large government document filled with obscure documents and confusing charts,” he added. “But that is our responsibility, and we are doing it. Obviously, not perfectly but we are working extremely hard to get it right.”
Ultimately, the council approved, by a vote of 4-1, a near $24 million budget for next fiscal year with a projected surplus of $163,878.
Gone from the final draft were pay raises that had been discussed, as well as planned equipment purchases and facility maintenance across nearly all departments.
For all its last-minute cuts, interim Chief Operations Officer Mark Alexander Jr. told the council the budget is manageable.
“Can the city live by this budget? Absolutely,” he said. “In many cases, it’s more than the budget that they had and exist on right now on a departmental level.”
Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Stewart was the lone vote against the budget. Ward 5’s Stephen Jones was absent.
Gaskin announced at the meeting Jones had to recuse himself from budget discussions and votes because his sister is employed with the city.
However, Jones attended and participated in past years’ budget discussions, as he did the first budget hearing Sept. 8 for next fiscal year.
The error and the changes
Originally, city administration crafted a budget with a nearly $550,000 projected surplus — money the council had hoped to use toward targeted employee raises.
But on Monday, Alexander discovered while solid waste revenue had been tallied for the budgeted total, more than $1.5 million in projected solid waste expenses had been omitted, meaning that budget was inadvertently hiding what would have been a more than a $1.06 million deficit.
In the approved version, some of the biggest-ticket items trimmed were $235,000 for digital radios for the police department to replace its antiquated analog devices and $160,000 for new self-contained breathing apparatus units for the fire department.
Equipment for parks and recreation and public works was removed, as well as planned repairs to convention center and parks facilities.
The budget left in money to re-roof the municipal complex, but it cut roofing plans for the adjacent former strip mall property the city owns and houses offices.
“We took the big things out that the city has not (historically) done well planning for — capital improvements, equipment, deferred maintenance cost,” Alexander said.
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens asked if there was any way to add the fire department’s breathing equipment back to the budget. Alexander said if the council saw fit, it could transfer money from the surplus to the fire department at any time during the fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
Gaskin said he wants to find alternate avenues to fund both the police and fire equipment.
“The two things that hurt me the most — well, there were three with the raises, obviously — were the breathing apparatuses and the radios for the police department. I believe those are life-saving pieces of equipment that we need. … I am going to work tirelessly to find grant money to replace those costs.”
Alexander reported the city did budget roughly $200,000 in additional revenue for solid waste. The original budget included $1.9 million in revenue, but he said this year’s receipts would eclipse $2.1 million. He expects next year to be similar.
After Alexander presented the new budget Wednesday, Gaskin appeared to try to nip discussion of employee raises in the bud.
“Nobody needs to try to win political points here or bring up conversations that are not effective to what we’re trying to do for the citizens,” he said.
It didn’t work, as Stewart quickly turned the conversation to employee pay.
“I don’t see anything (included) for city employee pay increases,” she said. “… Is there nowhere we can get money to add to the budget for that?”
Alexander explained the city is “hemmed in” on that issue for next fiscal year since it had already approved the ad valorem tax rate and could not legally revise it this late in the process.
He also repeated what he called the city’s past failures to effectively plan for capital improvements, maintenance, equipment costs and employee raises.
The council first discussed, with the originally projected surplus, a 3-percent across-the-board pay raise for employees. That plan changed to targeted raises based on performance and tenure. On Wednesday, Alexander said following either plan would have been devastating to city finances, especially if the solid waste error had not been caught in time.
He added that he believes that same error occurred in this year’s approved budget, meaning the city’s operating cash reserves will likely fall well short of its projected $2.8 million.
“We’re fortunate we didn’t do 3-percent pay raises,” Alexander said. “Because if we had done that and figured this out in two months, three months, four months, you would have been obligated (to) monthly expenditures that the city could not afford.”
Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard asked if the city could use part of its separate insurance fund — which contains about $1 million — to fund raises or if the $5.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds the city will receive could at least be used for one-time stipends.
Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell said insurance funds are normally kept back to pay for employee medical claims and needed a healthy balance to cover large claims. As for the stipends for ARPA — which can be earmarked as hazard pay for certain employees — Gaskin said he was willing to do more research on that possibility.
Gaskin then tried to steer the conversation back to passing the budget.
“I understand everybody would like to have a raise. Nobody is ever paid probably what they are truly worth,” Gaskin said. “We have to also remember when we are doing this that … this is taxpayers dollars. … We seem to be going down the same road with the same questions and the same answers. Where we are today, because of how the city has been run, is where we are today. … The facts are in front of you in black and white.
“We have employees whose roofs are falling in at their offices,” he later added. “That is a serious issue. People don’t want to work in an environment like that. We have a lot of serious issues that we have to face, guys. It’s not that we don’t want to give our employees a raise. We would love to. And I’m prepared to sit down with each and every employee and explain to them why we can’t.”
Mayor criticizes The Dispatch
During Wednesday’s meeting, Gaskin offered harsh criticism of The Dispatch’s coverage of the $1.5 million budgeting error.
A Dispatch reporter asked Alexander Monday morning why solid waste expenditures weren’t shown on the original budget’s cover sheet. By that evening Alexander and Gaskin confirmed the expenditure discrepancy to The Dispatch, which ran a front-page story and an editorial on the Opinion page of its Tuesday edition.
“Because I have an undergraduate degree in journalism, I feel like I am somewhat qualified to comment on this, so I plan to,” Gaskin said. “I believe … in being cooperative with the press. I’m not angry with the local newspaper, but I am extremely disappointed. First, I thought the headline was a little over the top given the situation we’re in right now. I understand they need to sell newspapers. I understand journalism ethics. It was a fair headline, but I’m not sure it was completely accurate. That’s a debate for another day. But the thing that really got under my skin, just a little bit for a few minutes, then I got past it, was the Opinion page of The Commercial Dispatch, especially when it said this: ‘Oversight signals a need for more attention to detail.’ Right back at you, Commercial Dispatch.
“Since I have been in this position, I have been spoon-feeding the paper information to make sure the citizens got accurate information. Since that time, I have been misquoted and my comments have been taken out of context. Again, I’m not mad at them, I’m not going to fight with them and this is not going to change how I work with them, but I’ve had conversations with editorial writers there and with reporters there already and explained to them where they have misquoted me and took things out of context. This is how you do it: you leave a word out, you rewrite a sentence. You leave a sentence out. You interview two people separately, then you put their quotes together in the story. That’s out of context in my opinion.
“What I am trying to do as your mayor and will continue to do, is have them shine a light with all the other news media on City Hall and what we are doing. That is needed. That is a must. And if they continue doing what they are doing now, I will continue to do my part but I will continue to call them out.”
Publisher’s note: The Dispatch stands behind its reporting on the budget error and other stories referenced by Mayor Gaskin.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.