- Paris Flash
- Real Estate
By CHARLES RICHARDS
Before gaveling to order Thursday afternoon’s third straight day of department-by-department discussions on the proposed 2012-2013 city budget, Mayor AJ Hashmi expressed disappointment there was little evidence of strategic planning or productivity improvements.
Those were priorities some council members expressed to city manager John Godwin in a workshop session of the council shortly after he took over in May.
The mayor praised Godwin’s budget as “a good one” with the reduction in tax rate that the council had requested.
“I’m not complaining about the budget. It’s a good budget. You did a good job,” Hashmi said.
“That’s not why I’m disheartened. I’m saddened because at what point are we going to hear a department head say, ‘This is my department. This is where we are now, and this is where I want to be a year from now, and this is where I want to be a few years from now.’ I think that is more of the thing that the council should see here – what is the plan for the future,” Hashmi said.
Department heads should feel safe in telling the council what they want even if the manager disagrees with the request, Hashmi said.
“If your concern is that I prepare everybody’s budget and tell them to agree to it or else, that’s not what happens,” Godwin said.
“In fact, when I came to town three months ago, everybody had already drafted their budget. I’m using the one that was already drafted,” said Godwin, whose first day on the job was May 23.
Godwin said he met with each department head from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on what their issues were. The only vehicle replacements he approved were five police cars and an ambulance – both of which were on a vehicle replacement schedule, he said.
“If you’re concerned that we’re not doing anything on productivity or trying to change the organizational culture, I assure you that’s what I do pretty much every day, all day,” the city manager said. “But it’s going to take a while for that to happen.”
When Godwin presented the budget to the council on Aug. 27, he said he presumed the council would take one meeting and talk about the highlights, as many city councils prefer.
Instead, the mayor asked for a series of workshops this week so council members could hear from department heads and go line by line through their budgets, asking questions as they desired.
A public hearing on the manager’s proposed budget is scheduled for Monday night at the city council chambers at 107 E. Kaufman St. The changes the council makes Monday to the manager’s proposal will require another public hearing, probably on Sept. 24.
Plans are for the council to approve the final budget on Sept. 27, four days before the new fiscal year begins.
“Clearly there is not necessarily a right or wrong way to do a budget. You can do it different ways. Some councils want to go into great detail and some don’t. In my 26 years of experience, it’s been done more this way than another,” Godwin said.
“The original memo I put out and sent to you guys five weeks ago was my effort to let you know the big things that were coming in this budget. Frankly, the council’s job is programs and priorities and policies – not individual line items,” the manager said.
Godwin said he mentioned that “to let you know that we don’t adopt the budget by line item.” You can, he said, but by law if a department head spends more than the $400 he has budgeted for office supplies, he has to amend the budget.
“Nobody does that, but you can if you choose to. And that’s your call. That’s your business,” Godwin said.
He drafted this budget with the assumption the council would approve department totals rather than going line-by-line.
“So if the public works budget is $1.4 million, the public works director is responsible for not spending more than $1.4 million unless he comes back and ask for a change in his budget.”
Godwin said he emphasized in his budget message to the council the big-picture items like the tax rate, planned improvements in the infrastructure, and changes in personnel, “which is virtually none in this case.”
“And that was on purpose. I was new and I told them I wasn’t going to add any new people. I told them if they want to make a case for adding any new people, well, we’re going to do that next year,” Godwin said.
Hashmi said the only request the council received in the department-by-department sessions was from the fire chief, who expressed a desire to have three more firefighters. The mayor said he’s inclined to support that request.
“If you want to get all the department heads to get up there and tell you all the extra stuff they want, well, we can do that. I’ve done that in other cities, and I started to do it here, but again, being pretty new and not knowing what was valid and what was not … . But like I said, I’ve done that before and it works real well, if you want something like that …”
The mayor said he was very interested in that.
District 5 councilman Matt Frierson said that as the department heads are coming up, “they have gone over the budget with John, and maybe we should let John have more input as far as what he saw in his discussions with them.”
District 4 councilman Dr. Richard Grossnickle said one of the reasons the council selected Godwin as the city manager from among 100 applicants “was because he has a huge amount of budget experience in cities as large as 140,000 people.
“And so, you know, I have confidence in John’s ability,” Grossnickle said.
Frierson said what he appreciated most about Godwin’s budget proposal was the summary of several pages about the major components of his proposal.
“You said you were adding $1.2 million for replacement, in your words, of some of the worst water and wastewater lines in hopes of reducing outages, line breaks, and impacts on sewer plant volumes,” Frierson said.
“Seeing that as a line item is one thing, but seeing it in bullet point format, for me is very helpful. Speaking for myself, it’s really cut down on the amount of questions I’ve had,” Frierson added.
District 6 councilwoman Cleonne Drake said she likes the idea of the manager giving a synopsis of each department’s needs, with the department heads available for questioning from council members. She said she would like to hear each department head’s “wish list.”
Ms. Drake said because all the council members want the city to have a strategic plan, “I think each department head should say where they would like their department in three or five years – whatever the city planner comes up with.”
Godwin said those planning meetings need to occur in January and March and April, “so that when the budget comes around, you’ve already talked about what the priorities are.”
But he said planning should start with the council and go down – not from the staff.
“Staff doesn’t need to come to you and tell you what their priorities are, until they get policies from you,” the manager said.
“The planning needs to happen first, and the planning needs to start with the council, not the staff, because you’re the guys who speak for the citizens. We just work for the citizens; you speak for them, you represent them, and so that onus, that responsibility, goes on you,” Godwin said.
District 5 councilman John Wright said productivity is an important piece of the puzzle. ““We need the people in place before we begin making long-range plans,” Wright said.
“The people that you hope are going to be here long term, yes sir,” Godwin agreed.
The manager added: “There are some reorganizations and changes that will occur – maybe in the next couple of weeks, maybe in the next couple of months. There are things that will change, structurally and personnel wise. And that needs to happen, too.”
send comments on this article to