Conway Mayor Tab Townsell has taken full responsibility for the city’s general fund reserve problem.
"This was an unprofessional mistake, and I assume all responsibility for it as Mayor," Townsell said at Friday’s special Conway City Council meeting.
The projected remedy to the city’s general fund reserve problem has been approved and, at least on paper, puts the reserve fund at about $2.7 million by year’s end without cutting into employee payrolls. The reserve was discovered this week to have fallen unnoticed by city officials to about $1.2 million, necessitating budget cuts that were feared to include payroll cuts for city employees.
This comes from the work of the city’s department heads, who on Thursday morning were told to present Mayor Tab Townsell with their best efforts to cut their departmental budgets to the fullest extent possible to see if the reserve could be restored without payroll cuts.
"They were very emotionally involved in protecting your salaries," Townsell said to a number of city employees in attendance.
The department heads came up with about $1.4 million in budget cuts, none of which involve cutting into employees’ base pay. Townsell said after the Conway City Council approved these cuts that he was "fairly confident" that these savings would actually be realized.
Also after the unanimous vote on the budget adjustments came an executive session called by alderwoman Mary Smith, who gave "personnel issues" as the reason for calling a closed-door session.
Townsell said after the session that the council discussed "the role of the CFO," referring to the city’s chief financial officer, Robin Scott.
Smith said after the meeting that she had arrived at an understanding of how the city’s reserve had dropped to what the council agreed was an inadequate level, but not of how the city’s finance department could have advised the council that the reserve was about $3 million when it was actually about $1.2 million, as had been calculated by the finance staff on Wednesday afternoon. Smith said before the executive session that the council "would not have approved three-quarters of what’s on the list" of expenses approved by the aldermen — all of whom believed that they were working with a $3 million reserve.
Townsell, who alone can make decisions involving department heads, said that he received wide-ranging input from the eight aldermen during the executive session.
"I basically got eight recommendations," he said after the meeting.
Townsell made no decision on the matter Friday night.
After an explanation by Scott of how the city’s reserve was depleted, Townsell invited comment from the crowd, which numbered over 150.
Damon Reed, president of the local firefighters’ union, said he felt the Conway Fire Department was "taking the lion’s share" of the budget cuts, and that cuts to equipment maintenance combined with an aging fleet of fire vehicles will mean that the aldermen "are going to be voting to fix a fire truck" over the course of the year.
Reed proposed extending the timeline for restoring the general fund beyond year’s end in order to free up money to purchase a new $455,000 fire truck or seeking other revenue to pay for the vehicle, such as selling city-owned land.
This fire truck had been approved for purchase out of Conway Sanitation Department reserve funds, and in effect the cancellation of the order "cashes in" the vehicle in the interest of restoring the general fund reserve. Townsell told the council that he wouldn’t recommend any further drawing down of the sanitation reserve.
Townsell replied to Reed’s suggestion by saying that the city would be acting against the public trust to "fire sale" land, meaning to sell it quickly and cheaply rather than undertake the lengthy process of liquidating public assets, and that restoring the reserve quickly was a priority.
"When times are good, make it up," Reed said.
Fire Chief Bart Castleberry said after the meeting that he was confident that the new truck would be on order when the city’s budget "bounces back," and that the one fire truck on-order, paid for through a quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to fire and street use, was a step toward improving the reliability of his department’s fleet that would have to suffice for now.
"First of all, the citizens will not suffer any ill effects from this," Castleberry said after the meeting. "The men and women of the Conway Fire Department are very dedicated and will adapt and improvise and train to the best of their ability and our ability to provide it for them. We’re just cutting some of our specialty training out; in-house training will still be ongoing. The good thing about Conway is that Conway always bounces back, and when we get to that point we’ll make up for what we had to cut here."
"I was proud for the employees tonight," Castleberry added.
The Conway Police Department’s largest contribution to the savings involves restructuring officers’ schedules to do away with the necessary four hours overtime per two-week pay period, which saves about $205,000 at the expense of full-time coverage of the city’s patrol zones, which was the intent of the move from 10- to 12-hour shifts.
Chief of Police A.J. Gary said the current arrangement allows for one patrolman per zone and two "roving" patrolmen who cover a zone while the dedicated patrolmen are otherwise occupied or — as the need to cut overtime will dictate — off work. These "roving" patrolmen will be cut as per CPD’s new budget, Gary said.
Conway businessman Jack Sotallaro told the council that he recommended the aldermen allow CPD overtime to remain in the budget "or else admit that you made a mistake" by approving it in the first place.
Also, the council voted to cut funding to provide some city assistance for non-profit organizations including the Downtown Partnership ($40,000), Boys and Girls Club of Faulkner County ($12,500), Faulkner County Council of Developmental Disabilities ($30,000) and Faulkner County Senior Citizens Center ($45,000). The council also did not approve $25,000 for a agriculture/horticulture consultant and $40,000 for economic development. These expenses may be included in a future 2010 budget adjustment, Townsell said.
(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached at 505-1238 or by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit.)
Click here for a complete list of itemized budget cuts.