02/17/11 — City will face $500,000 shortfall

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City will face $500,000 shortfall

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 17, 2011 1:46 PM

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City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Allen discusses the projected $500,000 budget shortfall during the council's annual retreat Wednesday.

Members of the Goldsboro City Council could not come up with a viable solution Wednesday when told that the city would likely soon be facing a nearly $500,000 budget shortfall due, in part, to rising gas prices.

"It seems to me you're $500,000 in the hole," Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Allen said. "So the question is, how are we going to get back to even? Somehow, you've got to pick up that $500,000."

But doing so, the board was told, is easier said than done.

Allen's suggestion of potentially freezing an additional 10 jobs -- 14 were frozen to save money last year -- was quickly dismissed.

"When you say, 'Freeze the other 10,' four of them are police officers," the department's soon-to-be-retired chief, Tim Bell, said, before other department heads added that the vacant jobs also include Bell's replacement, the person who will take City Manager's Joe Huffman's post when he begins a new job in Mississippi next month and a Parks and Recreation employee that is in the process of being hired.

And when council member Bob Waller asked if there were "any positions we don't need that we have," most in the room shook their heads.

The first day of the council's two-day annual retreat saw lengthy discussions on a myriad of issues.

But the conversations that lasted the longest involved money.

Hours before the looming shortfall was discussed, Huffman warned the board that the city needed to figure out a way to bring in more revenue.

But when he suggested a tax increase, Allen scoffed at the notion while the other elected officials in the room remained silent.

"I think people generally don't agree with you," Allen said.

And when, hours later, the ideas ran out, the mayor pro tem left city finance director Kaye Scott with the charge of coming up with a solution.

"You all figure out how you're going to find the $500,000 and come back and tell us," he said.

Other topics discussed during the Wednesday session included:

* Department heads were asked what their priorities were for the next 10 years. Most of them said they wanted to see their employees get a pay raise, including Bell, who said the starting salaries for many who work for the city are lower than they are in surrounding municipalities. "We're behind," he said. "It's a fact."

* After a presentation by Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp. executive director Julie Thompson, Allen said the city needs to figure out a way to attract businesses to the downtown area. "Right now, we're losing people," he said. "We're not regaining them." The mayor pro tem added that something needs to be done about "panhandlers" and "vagrants" that can often be found in the city's core. "It doesn't make people feel good," Allen said. "It puts them in an awkward position." Bell responded by saying those who come into contact with panhandlers should call 911.

Otherwise, it would be "illegal" and "unconstitutional" for police officers to arrest them. "If we're going to beat this thing and get these panhandlers out of here, we're gonna have to work together," Mayor Al King said.

* Councilman the Rev. Charles Williams asked the board to reinstate longevity. "To some, it helps them make ends meet," he said. "And personally, I believe it will help morale." But Allen said he is more in favor of raising salaries based on cost-of-living, so that "everybody gets something." King agreed that something needs to be done if the city hopes to retain employees he characterized as "the best." And he asked department heads and members of the city management team to come back before the council with their suggestions. "You know more about how your employees feel than we do," the mayor said.

* Allen suggested that the city look into installing GPS units in all government-owned vehicles in order to track exactly where employees are at all times. The use of the technology, he said, would increase efficiency and save the city money.

For complete coverage of the retreat, including an update from the Police Department scheduled for this afternoon, follow the News-Argus in print and online.