September 5, 2012 Edition

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WR Council deals with dwindling
budget, improper phone usages

Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

Walnut Ridge City Council members have been concerned about the city's dwindling bank account for many months and have not seen marked improvement in city funds despite recent efforts to cut back on spending. A special meeting was called on Aug. 28 to discuss reasons for the decrease in the city's bank balance and to make plans to get the city's finances back on track.

According to city records and Alderman Ed Lawson, the city had $305,000 in the general fund and $81,437.44 in their savings account when former mayor Michelle Rogers left office at the end of Dec., 2010. In August of this year the bank balance was $86,827, and at one point in the month dropped down to $36,000.

"That's quite a reduction," Lawson said. "We can't continue in this manner.

"We are over budget in a lot of areas - payroll for one. And the city has spent $21,000 for phone bills this year. One employee downloaded $871 of media on a city phone, and one employee's child ran up a $786.46 bill texting on a city phone, which the employee is repaying. Another employee talked to his girlfriend 61 minutes on a city phone while he was on duty, which cost the city $105 in overages, and called her 181 times in one month. If he has that much time to send text messages, he isn't doing his job and we probably don't need him."

Mayor Don House, who does not have a city cell phone, said cell phone usage has gotten out of hand and that the city has been working on getting both cell and land phone expenses cut. He agreed they have been out of control.

"We were pretty frugal last year," said Mayor House. "We began the first of this year with $256,000, but our revenue has been flat or down some and that is a big part of the city's income. However, sales tax has been up in recent months."

"Our bank account has taken a hit from three lawsuits against the city," House said. "The lawsuits were filed during a previous administration. We have had to pay the state municipal league $3,000 per suit this year and some last year to defend us in those cases. We were also hit with some annexation expenses we hadn't anticipated."

"The cost of gas has risen 50 cents to a dollar more per gallon this year, and we have been hard hit with phone expenses, which we are working diligently to rectify. We also have other plans to cut expenses by cutting down on payroll," House said.

"We lost two employees last year that we did not replace and cut back with four layoffs through the summer because we didn't have to mow as much," House continued. "That's a total of six fewer city employees which saves us $2,475 per week. With summer ending, we will not be paying drivers to spray for mosquitoes, and the swimming pool employees will not be working. Other cuts may have to be made. I have two other plans that can save the city more money if we need to use them."

Lawson commended the mayor for having plans, but said he didn't think that would be enough.

Lawson said the city is heavy on employees but needs to cut them in the right places. He said city employees are also being seen hanging out at the donut shop, the courthouse and other places when they are supposed to be working.

"Do we need them if they aren't working?" Lawson asked.

"We've let it go too long," Lawson said. "Our cash on hand continues to dwindle each month. We've spent 115 percent of our police department budget for the year on cell and land line phone bills. There is a $10,000 gap between what we budgeted for income and what we have actually brought in.

"We have spent $33,000 this year on oil and gas and $21,000 for phone bills. Which one would you rather spend the money on?"

Council members noted they have seen city police cars parked outside buildings with the motors left running for long periods of time, which they feel is unnecessary.

The council agreed that cell phones used correctly are less expensive than radios for city employees. They discussed the possibility of paying city employees who use their own cell phones at work a set amount each month, or buying $25 to $50 prepaid phones from Walmart for use by employees.

City employees issued cell phones include: police department -police chief, CID officer, police captain and K9 officer; street department - assistant superintendent; mosquito superintendent; the code enforcement officer, In addition, the fire chief and two captains use their own cell phones and are reimbursed $25 per month.

The city also pays AT&T $30 a month for Internet service for the fire department and $60.78 each month for an Internet card for the mayor to use with his laptop when he is traveling on city business.

The council asked that department heads meet and see where they felt they could make some cutbacks and then meet with the mayor to discuss their findings. Following that meeting, a special council meeting was scheduled on Sept. 4 to make their recommendations to the council.

City dumpsters are also being discontinued except for spring and fall cleanup, after a suggestion by Alderwoman Paula Haskins. The dumpsters have been available to citizens on Saturdays, and each time a dumpster is emptied, it costs the city $800. It was a service the city had provided to help keep the streets clean and to aid in keeping rodents and other vermin under control.

"We can't operate in the red," said Alderman Mike Phillips. "We have to shut the city down if we can't get the budget under control."

Alderman Michael "Button" Wallin agreed. "We've got to get back in the black. It will take all of us working together, and we have to start now. This will not be an overnight thing to fix."

Lawson also asked the council to decide if the employees will be asked to repay the city for the excess phone bills they ran up, and if so, how far back the city would like to go in looking at previous bills.

The layoffs or cutbacks in city employees were to be decided at last night's (Sept. 4) special council meeting.

Mayor House told the council he would meet with department heads following last Tuesday night's meeting to hear what proposals they might have.

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