For almost 4 years, residents have been complaining about the financial decisions made by our Crescent City, City Council. Starting with the scheme to raise sewer rates $30 a month to fund a $42.5 million wastewater treatment plant in a time when the country was entering a recession, and currently wondering how they will close and balance an approximate $200,000 deficit. Except only one person from the public attended Tuesday nights meeting, May 17th, held at the Wastewater Treament Plant from 5:30 to 10 pm.and that was Mrs. Slert, wife of our Mayor. She took the podium to remind the council that having enough protection in the form of our police department was important to her.
What happened to the rest of the public? An observation made during Mayor Slert’s opening remarks
Keep in mind that every time the city negotiates employee union contracts, the council approves cost of living increases in an environment that even the Federal Government states they are not giving any cost of living increases going on 3 years in a row, you have to wonder what’s going on. Approved 4-0. Guess who was the dissenting vote? Westfall. At the time of the vote, she reminded the Council of the fact about succumbing to cost of living increases in today’s economic enviornment is helping to divide the city. Plus, the obvious. It would put the city into a deficit. Apparently no one got the message, or understood the message. Maybe now they are beginning to get the message. Residents think city employees are lucky to have a job. But, again, no one from the public was there to remind them Tuesday night, May 17th.
When a $5 million budget is comprised of $3 million of it going towards salary and benefits, doesn’t it just make sense to cut a percentage and be done with it? Cut 7% and that equals $210,000. Simple. Sounds simple. Maybe too simple. Tuesday night, the city council discussed, argued and harangued at points over the police budget, the city attorney’s budget, the pool budget and on and on and on. For almost 5 hours they kept at it. Even saving over $200,000 a year by changing insurance carriers was not enough to take up all the slack. It was a tremendous kick-start to decreasing the deficit by changing carrier, and approved 5-0 at Monday nights council meeting. Congrats to Finance Director, Ken McDonald for tracking them down.
Let’s get back to rest of the budget. Take for example the pool. Apparently going to salt water is more appealing to the public because there’s less in the way of chlorine chemicals that burn the eyes and ruin swim suits. The big problem with using salt water is that it’s hard on the equipment. Public Works Director, Jim Barnts, and City Engineer, Eric Wier, explained that the boiler is needing to be replaced. There are pumps and heaters issues, and parts are rusting out on equipment. The boiler alone is $2,000. It’s going to add $10,000 a year to the pool budget, a budget which has always cost the ctiy. The current proposed ’11-’12 budget looks to have $224,500 plus deficit.
Again, not one person from the public attended the 5 hour event. In attendance with hands out were Bob Berkowitz and Chris Howard, representing the Visitor’s Bureau. Gina Zitolla representing the Chamber of Commerce. Matt Hildebrandt representing the Swimming Pool. Bill Renfroe from Tri Agencies. Also attending, our local Daily Triplicate reporter, Megan Hansen.
The Cultural Center (currently housing the Chamber of Commerce, which pays no rent or utilities), was built to have plays and entertainment. However, the acoustics are so bad that no one wants to use it for that purpose. The kitchen is outdated and has problems. Rentals in the area are more competitive than the Cultural Center and so another black hole for the City. Mayor Slert asks the obvious question. Is it time to unload the place?
The City Attorney budgeted at around $100,000 a year actually cost $123,437 for ’08-09, $134,768 for ’09-’10. Council member Schellong was quick to point out in typical Schellong disparaging remark style that the lawsuits caused by former finance Director Joei Sanchez (whistleblower), former police officer Michelle Barber, and current Council member Westfall for her numerous recalls and sewer rate initiative/ rollback were a big part of those expenses which she hoped would not be repeated in the coming year. Ms. Schellong forgets that Westfall was elected by the people to try to reduce those sewer fees which to this day contains a black cloud surrounding the Prop 218 protest vote count. One of those recalls centered on former City Clerk, Dianne Nickerson, because it appeared that she did not count the protest votes accurately creating suspicion and doubt. Nickerson resigned as a result.
Attorney Bob Black currently bills out his time at $199.50 an hour, his assistant, Martha Rice at $173.50 an hour and his paralegal, Nancy Mingelen at $65 an hour. Questions were asked about conflict of interest since he also represents the Harbor, the Airport, Del Norte Solid Waste Authority among other public and private clients. A brief discussion was held about all the problems the city had in the past when they did have a city attorney on payroll. Mr. Black is a contract employee not a city employee. To his credit, Mr. Black billed the city half his rate while occupying the role of interim City Manager. However, is it time for him to also consider cutting back his team’s hourly rates during our recession as things become worse and worse for our residents?
More? Bill Renfroe from Tri Agencies, wanted $1500 more. Westfall, quietly knitting while considering his request, suggested he cut his $90,000 a year package by 2%. Schellong criticized Westfall for knitting. Westfall reminded Schellong that Elinore Roosevelt knitted during meetings. Mayor Slert added, “And you know what happened to her.” A moment of levity. Renfroe protested that for a consultant to work the hours he does, that boils down to about $25 an hour. Try being a city council member. They don’t even reach minimum wage if you want to consider numbers of hours worked.
Half way through the meeting, Westfall offered freshly baked, rich, dark chocolate brownies to help keep energy levels up.
Next Tuesday night, May 24th will be the continuing saga of trying to balance the budget. If you’re a member of the public and are interested in attending, it will be held at the Wastewater Treatment plant. Probably 5:30 pm. Will there be brownies? Will Westfall continue to knit? Will Schellong continue to complain about Westfall knitting. Will the city council get to a balanced budget? Check back, bring suggestions. Get involved.