September12, 2012 Edition

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WR Mayor reveals plan to
alleviate budget shortfall

Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

At a special meeting on Sept. 4, Walnut Ridge Mayor Don House methodically laid out plans to increase the city's general fund balance and repeated causes for the decrease that had alarmed many city council members. Personnel layoffs accounted for the largest reduction in spending.

"None of us want to see anyone lose their job," House told the council. "However we have to provide the city with services and help keep our citizens safe. This will restore us to where we need to be financially."

"After meetings with department heads, I instructed them to make several layoffs effective Sept. 1," House said. "One full-time and two part-time police officers, three street employees and one part-time dumpster maintenance man were let go, and the planning and code officer jobs were combined and cut back to 30 hours a week. Beginning on or before Oct. 1, one full-time and three part-time employees from the mosquito department will be laid off until next May."

According to House, these cutbacks will result in $125,217 in savings between now and the end of the year.

"All city cell phones have been cancelled and changed to $25 per month reimbursements to those whose jobs require cell phones. The city's landline service is being changed from AT&T to Suddenlink, which will save us $2,100 per month," House said. "Fire Chief Frank Owens is to be commended for the work he has done in finding a landline phone provider that will save us a great deal of money. Total phone savings between now and the end of the year will total $8,400."

Cutting twice weekly dumpster service to fall cleanup only will save an additional $10,200 this year, according to the mayor.

"We are not broke,"said House. "We have revenue coming in every month. The city is also still due money from the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and FEMA, and we should receive that this fall. We usually receive between $85,000 and $100,000 from county and city sales tax each month, but that amount has run $2,000 to $5,000 lower this year than in previous years."

He said he thought earlier in the year the amount would pick up, and it actually did. But it didn't pick up enough to compensate for the rate increases in employees' insurance, workman's compensation, etc., and the almost $1 a gallon rise in fuel costs - amounts for which the council had not budgeted.

The city's proposed budget is sent to council members in November of each year and must be approved by Feb. 1, as the city's fiscal year runs from January through December.

Early in the year, two employees resigned and were not replaced, and in July three street and one park employee positions were cut, and mileage on police patrol cars were cut back to help save on fuel consumption.

Along with increased expenses, the city purchased a skid-steer, made a settlement with a K-9 officer who was owed money from the city, and paid $30,000 to relocate the police department after its former building was demolished in an accident.

In view of the layoffs, council members briefly discussed ways they might do their part in helping get the budget back on track.

Alderman Wendell Jones made a motion that council members forego their $100 monthly salary and either drop their insurance (which costs the city $405 per month per member) or pay it out of pocket for the remainder of the year. When the legalities of that suggestion were questioned, he tabled the motion and will bring it up again at the next council meeting after the city attorney has a chance to study it further.

Alderman Ed Lawson told the mayor that he did not feel the cuts made were adequate or in the right places.

"Maybe I misunderstood," Lawson said. "Minutes from our last meeting say all department heads were to come up with a plan for ways to cut back on expenses and then bring them before the council, and that cuts would be made as a city, keeping them at a minimum. This scurrying around to make the cuts only took place after our meeting last Tuesday night, and not with the council present as we requested."

City Attorney Adam Weeks told Lawson that the mayor has the authority to manage the city in day-to-day activities and to make the decision about layoffs.

Mayor House told Lawson that he, as a council member, had voted every month at meetings to approve the budget and the payment of bills.

"I have brought up facts before the council for months," House said. "We have talked about cutting back in some departments. No one has come to me to talk about budget concerns. As mayor, I was just doing my job."

Lawson said he wanted to go on record that he does not feel the mayor's plan was adequate, and that more cutbacks are needed - not just in personnel.

"We're in a desperate situation here," Lawson said. "I commend you for having a plan that you feel is adequate."

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