The first chance to hash out the existing and potential implications of the recent revelation that there was less money in the city’s general fund reserve than projected was scrubbed with the cancelation of Tuesday night’s Conway City Council meeting.
Some aldermen were contacted by phone on Tuesday and were asked their thoughts on the issue.
"I only know the same stuff that (Mayor Tab Townsell) told (the Log Cabin Democrat)," alderwoman Shelley Mehl said. "My recommendation, as soon as we know exactly what happened, is to get the information out there and figure out what to do to solve it. I don’t know if it’s an accounting error or a kind of ‘perfect storm’ of things (expenses) hitting all at once. I want to make a decision based on all the facts. It looks like Tab is being proactive right now by putting a freeze on capital purchases and hiring freeze. That’s a proactive step in my mind."
Alderman David Grimes and Alderwoman Shelia Whitmore said that they wouldn’t comment extensively until it was clear how much money actually exists in the reserve fund and how the city’s financial staff overestimated the number so badly.
"I’d hate to speculate on anything before we know all the facts," Grimes said.
Whitmore said that the issue for her would become more clear when the council is briefed on "where we actually are on our budget."
"I was surprised, but it’s an issue that we have, and we just need to take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we can operate with the budget that we have," she said. "Whatever steps we can take to do that, we owe that to our citizens."
Alderwoman Mary Smith, responding via e-mail, stated that she was "shocked and very disappointed" to hear that the general fund reserve figures provided to the council were incorrect.
"The council was told a few weeks ago (that) there was $3.5 million in reserve and that the budget would be tight this year," Smith wrote. "I know that the city’s finance office has been working to find the cause of the error, and we expect a report to the council any day now. Other than that, I won’t really have any more information until the final analysis has been provided. We will need to put several steps in place to make sure this never happens again! I plan to propose that the city have a formal audit conducted by the state, as well."
Alderman Jim Rhodes, the newest member of the council, said that he would be "the last to throw stones about auditing and bookkeeping," but that he was surprised and disappointed to hear about the general fund reserve.
"Certainly I feel a little disappointed that we’ve given our employees an indication that we’re OK this year," Rhodes said. "We even tried to give them that 1-percent cost of living increase, and the last thing I want to do is go back on our word on that. But the last thing we need to do is operate at a zero cash flow."
"I wish I knew a little more about everything," he also said. "I was hoping to learn a little more about it (Tuesday)."
And Alderman Mark Vaught, who said he visited City Hall on Tuesday afternoon when city Chief Financial Officer Robin Scott was the only person in the closed-due-to-inclement-weather building, said that he would "first and foremost want to fix the problem before I point fingers."
"Every time that I asked the question, ‘How much do we have in reserve?; how’s the reserve doing?,’ I was always told we had $3.5 million or $3.8 million," Vaught said. ... If I’m an elected official in the City of Conway then I carry the burden of this — I won’t say to the degree that our mayor and finance department does, but maybe I didn’t dig deep enough into the numbers. I bear some of the responsibility, and I certainly bear the responsibility of remedying the problem."
Vaught said that he would advise working with the city’s police and fire department administrators to cut capital expenditures, possibly in the form of reducing the number of vehicles on-order paid for through Conway Sanitation Department reserve funds approved recently by the council.
Vaught said that he would also recommend the finance department work with Townsell to implement a more clear and concise way to present numbers to the council, adding that he had only heard verbally the status of the reserve while the 2010 budget was being drafted.
"From this point forward all financial numbers I want to see in writing; I will demand that," Vaught said.
Townsell said Tuesday afternoon that finance staff still had not arrived at the exact amount in the general fund reserve. He said he hoped the number would be available on Wednesday.
(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.)