Warner Robins council discusses budget with department heads

chwright@macon.comJune 6, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- City Council finally discussed its fiscal 2014 budget in detail at a three-hour meeting Thursday afternoon, the first of its kind in years.

“This has been productive. I hope we set a precedent for years and years to come,” Mayor Chuck Shaheen said near the end of the meeting. “The only thing we could do better is probably have done this before we have the public hearing.”

Styrofoam boxes of barbecue sat in front each council member and Shaheen as they grilled department directors. By the end of it, council had asked to remove from the budget a car for the Redevelopment Agency executive director, ordered a utilities rate study and felt more confident about a raise for city employees.

“If we’d done this six weeks ago,” Councilman Mike Brashear started, “we wouldn’t be here today,” finished Councilwoman Carolyn Robbins.

Council will vote on the budget at its next meeting June 17.

Shaheen released a draft of the $35.6 million general fund budget on May 21. Though a public hearing for residents was held Monday, council and the mayor failed to talk about the details of the budget publicly until Thursday’s meeting.

That’s when council got the type of work session they’ve been requesting for nearly a year. While other full-day work sessions during the year consisted of quick presentations on several topics, Thursday’s meeting took a different form. The main topic was the budget, and as each department head took the hot seat, council asked questions about projects and the future.

Bill Harte, chief finance officer, was the first up. Council asked him detailed questions about revenue, which Brashear said is mainly flat, and about how estimates were predicted for personnel costs.

To a question from Robbins about whether the city would remain on track throughout the year, Harte said he can’t promise some unknown factor won’t tank the budget. Still, he said, the city is financially sound.

“And you’ve been right for the past 14 years,” Shaheen added.

Brashear, Robbins, Councilman Paul Shealy and Councilman Mike Daley previously questioned a 3 percent raise Shaheen included for city employees. Harte explained Thursday it wouldn’t be a cost of living adjustment given to all employees. It would be a pay scale adjustment that raises the maximums for every pay grade. If someone is already making more than their pay grade -- as many department directors are -- they wouldn’t receive a 3 percent salary increase, he said.

“Some people may get half a percent,” Harte said. “Some may get 1 percent.”

After the explanation, council members seemed satisfied with the proposal.

Council later suggested Shaheen strike from the budget a $27,500 car for Gary Lee, Redevelopment Agency executive director. Instead, his car allowance -- used for fuel expenses -- would be increased from $5,590 to $7,200.

After talking to Utilities Director Montie Walters about upgrades at the Sandy Run Creek Wastewater Plant, council agreed to study rates. Walters said the study would review whether current rates pay for operating the systems and if an increase should be used to pay for the plant upgrades.

Council also agreed to let staffers price upgrades to City Hall, the Civic Center and an old police building after a long discussion about the police building. The police department has moved into a new Law Enforcement Center a few blocks away.

Shaheen suggested council meet in 30 days to review ideas, which included using the old police building for office and records storage.

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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