Wilmington City Council Concludes Its Formal Budget Hearings

Posted on  05/01/2013 6:45 pm

Wilmington City Council has concluded a series of seven public hearings to review the Fiscal Year 2014 City Budget proposal presented in March by Mayor Dennis Williams. The final hearing this evening focused on the City’s Water/Sewer Fund. The Williams Administration has proposed a 12% water/sewer rate increase for Fiscal Year 2014 which begins on July 1, 2013.

Council President Theo Gregory said Council will take the next few days to review the information it received from the Administration during the budget hearings and determine its position on a number of issues including whether the size of the proposed water/sewer increase is appropriate.

Council Finance Committee Chair Charles “Bud” Freel said tonight he also wants greater public accountability of the City’s Water and Sewer Fund. Freel said that can be achieved through the establishment of separate budget accounts for water, sewer, stormwater, and the Fund’s reserve account. The reserve account represents available cash above and beyond what is projected to be needed for the normal operations of the Water/Sewer Fund that can be used by the City to cover unanticipated or emergency water or sewer problems.

Freel said because citizens are continuously asked to pay rate increases to support expenditures for producing potable water and providing sewer and stormwater runoff services, as well as to bolster the reserve account, they and the Council should be better able to track the dollars in each section of the Water/Sewer Fund. Freel said this would include tracking the available cash on hand for any expenditure that may arise. The Finance Chair said he wants the City to move in the direction of a completely stand-alone Water/Sewer Fund with separate accounting for staff, expenditures and cash-on-hand in the reserve account which would provide assurances that water/sewer funds are not being comingled in some way with the General Operating Budget.

Gregory also said chief among his budget concerns is the Administration’s intention to use money from the City’s Economic Development Strategic Fund and the Housing Strategic Fund to balance the FY 2014 budget. He said these accounts have been used effectively since they were created several years ago to promote business growth, create jobs and improve City neighborhoods. The President said he doesn’t like the fact that the Administration is now proposing to deplete these funds and divert attention from important issues like jobs and neighborhood growth.

Council Finance Chair Charles “Bud” Freel expressed a similar concern tonight saying Council will look for alternative ways to balance the budget so that money earmarked to promote jobs and housing remains intact. Freel said the City should be finding ways to increase or at least stabilize these accounts instead of decreasing funding. Freel noted that while these funds have been used in previous years to balance the budget or fund other programs, such actions were taken in conjunction with other budget reduction measures including the elimination of vacant positions and were never adopted as a stand-alone budget balancing maneuver.

Also troubling to the Finance Chair and Council President is the Mayor’s proposal to provide salary increases for a few of his appointees who were hired in January. Both officials said that decision was inappropriate for a variety of reasons including the fact that most City employees have gone four years without a formal pay increase.

As for the Administration’s plan to reduce gun violence and improve public safety, President Gregory said he had hoped to hear a more detailed presentation or plan from the Administration during the hearings. The Council President also expressed concern about the Fire Department’s presentation which included a discussion about the Department’s revision of the rolling bypass system which originally involved removing one piece of fire equipment from service each day to reduce overtime costs for the Department without compromising the safety of the public or firefighters.

The Council President said he heard no rationale as to why the Department has chosen to adopt a new system that removes a piece of equipment from service for approximately only 15 days each month which, he said, will increase overtime costs to the City. Gregory said the Council will also attempt to engage the Administration in a discussion about the recommendations contained in the Berkshire Report—a study conducted in 2012 which recommended several ways to reduce costs and improve the management of the Fire Department. Absent a more fully explained policing plan and fire safety discussion, Gregory said Council’s Public Safety Committee will continue to monitor, assess and judge the Administration’s public safety initiatives going forward.

Council President Gregory said he is now eager to continue his ongoing budget discussions with Members of Council and would expect the Legislative Branch to have more to say in the next week or so about any conclusions it has reached with respect to moving toward a final budget plan.

The Council President and Finance Chair Freel each made a statement tonight to mark the conclusion of the series of Council budget hearings. Those statements are included as part of this news release.

Statement by Council President Theo Gregory:
“The budget hearings were probing as they should be, but were conducted professionally and courteously. The information gleaned from the breadth of issues we discussed affecting City programs and services was invaluable. Council’s budget deliberations will now move forward. Our decisions concerning the Administration’s budget proposal will have a direct bearing on citizens and businesses as well as our neighborhoods and communities. We do not take this task lightly. While we are charged with reviewing each aspect of government operations for FY 2014, we also have the responsibility to determine how a single year budget plan affects the City’s fiscal health in the years ahead. Council Finance Chair Charles “Bud” Freel has once again convened a very productive series of budget hearings that have helped City Council Members and all of our citizens understand the contents of the Administration’s FY 2014 budget proposal. The hearings were made even more productive by the large number of Council Members who participated regularly, even though as part-time legislators, many are kept busy by other work-related responsibilities. I could not be happier with the high level of participation this year by my Council colleagues and I thank them as we move forward with our continuing budget discussions. When necessary we will consult with the Administration, but we are focused now on moving this budget into final form for a vote scheduled for May 16.”

Statement by City Council Finance Committee Chair Charles “Bud” Freel:
“I too thank my Council colleagues for their interest and participation in the budget process which is much appreciated. Now, we will take our collective knowledge and make some budget decisions, some of which could be difficult. Once Council votes its approval of a budget in late May, we are essentially signing off on the use of taxpayer dollars to fund Departmental staff, programs and services for the coming fiscal year. While it falls to the Administration to efficiently manage the affairs of City government, Council’s role in monitoring the budget does not end with an up or down vote in a few weeks, but continues throughout the year. Because of Council’s role in this process, Council President Gregory and I are looking forward to continuing our ongoing budget discussions with our Council colleagues to determine our course of action with respect to this budget proposal. As we bring the formal hearings to a close, I extend my thanks to the Directors and Managers of the City Departments who have appeared before this committee over the past few weeks as well as to the staff from the Office of Management and Budget for their role in assembling the budget. City Council’s role in reviewing the budget and providing the proper checks and balances on the Administration’s proposal would not have been possible without the extensive work of our Council staff and in particular our Deputy Chief of Staff Marchelle Basnight who involves herself with the budget process in a very responsible way throughout the year. Finally, my thanks to our City employees and to all of the citizens of Wilmington who have been with us for these proceedings either in-person in Council Chambers, via television on WITN, Channel 22 or via the Internet at WITN22.org. This concludes the formal City Council budget hearings for the FY 2014 budget.”