The Undercurrent: Are some city council members being frugal or foolish?

Kathryn Jones

Kathryn Jones

Some folks on the Glen Rose City Council seem determined to keep the city behind the times.

We’ve heard it before from some past and present elected officials who don’t like change:

“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

“We’ve been doing it this way for 40 years, so why change now?”

Once again, council members Chris Bryant and Johnny Martin are complaining about City Administrator Ken West’s salary — $90,000, plus a $6,000 car allowance. Both of them, as you may recall, opposed the city’s hiring of an administrator from the start. (Bryant was not on the council when the administrator was hired, but he was several years ago when the debate over hiring one began.)

And once again, the two council members are saying it costs too much money to have a professional with experience overseeing the city’s day-to-day operations. Earlier this month Mayor Pro Tem Bob Stricklin and council members Dennis Moore and Sandra Ramsay voted in favor of renewing the administrator’s contract; Bryant and Martin voted against it.

Governmental bodies are allowed under the Texas Open Meetings Act to go into executive, or closed, session to discuss personnel matters.

Now Bryant is complaining to the Glen Rose Reporter that the council went into executive session on Feb. 7 to discuss the city administrator’s salary.  According to the Reporter’s front-page story this week, Bryant “alleges that attempts to discuss a big ticket item in an open forum were recently shot down.”

Gee, going into closed session was fine with Bryant in 2010 when he lambasted former city code enforcer Darrell Webb for signing off on a local business’ building permit. It was Webb who insisted, as was entitled to do, that the discussion take place in open session. (Webb retired from his job for health reasons and died earlier this month.)

Nor did Bryant mind settling a complaint filed against him by animal control employee Cathrine Peck behind closed doors rather than in open forum. Peck, as you may recall from the incident last fall,  claimed Bryant “bullied” her and threatened her job when she balked at coming out on a Saturday at overtime pay and against city policy to remove a dead cat from the street for him. He denied her allegations. City policy only allows animal control to respond to emergencies after regular business hours. Bryant tried to get the policy changed, but the council didn’t back him up. How much taxpayer money was wasted from the fallout of that incident?

Clearly, West himself is not the problem. He received a favorable job evaluation from the council. If you talk to city employees, many of them will tell you that the city runs much more smoothly and efficiently and morale has improved since West became administrator. Council meetings certainly aren’t the jumbled mess they used to be.

The problem has been and will continue to be what the city administrator – regardless of who is in the position – represents. He is a threat to those who can’t resist micro-managing, who like to feel important and tout their power or who want to keep Glen Rose the way it was 40 years ago and not spend the money to improve it except for the minimum.

The City of Glen Rose is, as its auditor has said for the last several years in open council sessions, in strong financial shape. According to data compiled by Tex Pool – a local government investment pool — the city has amassed about $1.1 million in reserves and between $230,000 and $240,000 in savings.

“It’s for those unplanned contingencies,” West said of the savings when I asked him about it last month.

Fiscal responsibility compels most cities to try to maintain a 90-day reserve to pay for unforeseen expenses such as natural disasters. Sometimes the reserves are earmarked for capital or operational expenses.

The City of Cleburne, for example, keeps a 90-day reserve to “ensure there are funds to accommodate any unforeseen capital or operational expenditures,” according to its 2012-2013 budget overview.

The City of Glen Rose’s total operating expenditures for 2012-2013, as approved by the city council, are $1.198 million. That means the city has a six- to seven-month reserve built up, way beyond the 90 days, plus savings.

It’s good that Glen Rose has those ample reserves and should not touch them unless an emergency arises. It’s also great to have savings. But it’s not great for those savings to sit in an account, at a time when interest rates are so low, when the city could use some of them to invest in becoming more efficient and save time and money in the long run.

Case in point: Last month when some members of the city council wanted to spend $20,000 to upgrade the city’s budget software, Martin balked. It wasn’t a budgeted item, so the funds would either have to come out of savings or scraped together from other departmental budgets.

City staff members were actually doing some budget calculations by hand and the council wasn’t getting the data it needed to make decisions. At times it had to amend the budget or move money between accounts. (Bryant had complained about that, too.)

West explained to the council at its Jan. 14 meeting when the budgeting software agenda item came up for discussion that the city needed the system to monitor the budget, make sure funds were put in the right accounts and “give the council a better idea of where money is being spent.”

In the past, moving funds from account to account produced errors, West added. He pointed out that the city had “sufficient funds” in savings to make a “one-time purchase.”

“I disagree the system is broke,” Martin said. “Once we go into our savings account, it makes it easier to do it again. I’ve never been on a council where we went into our reserves.”

“So you like how we do the budget by hand?” Ramsay asked.

“We’ve been doing it this way for 40 years and longer, and it hasn’t been a problem,” Martin said. “Let’s budget for it. I won’t support going into our savings to fund this.”

“I do agree about pulling money out of the savings or reserves,” Bryant said. “Is this money available in other places other than getting it from reserves?”

Stricklin noted that every business he had ever worked at had monies from cash flow set aside for contingencies.

“Savings is for when you have something to make the business more efficient,” he said. “That’s to me where you use savings. To me this is a beneficial item.”

Martin and Bryant moved that West see if the funds were available elsewhere. Apparently, spending money to fix potholes in city streets is fine; fixing potholes in the city budget process is not.

City staffers wanted the software so badly that they were willing to give up the expense of hiring someone to clean the city hall offices. In the end, West found the money for the budget system by pulling a little here and there from other operations, but why is the city just sitting on that money? It’s not like it’s earning a lot of interest.

The city’s savings and reserve funds exceed those of some larger cities, in terms of how many months of operating expenses have been set aside. So why not use a small amount of those to make the city run more efficiently and keep a better handle on spending?

I’m certainly not advocating using city savings to pay West’s salary. That’s already a budgeted item. What I am saying is that Bryant and Martin often make it sound like the City of Glen Rose is in dire financial straits and that’s simply not the reality.

It’s good to be frugal, but not to the extent that it impedes progress. That’s not being frugal, that’s just being foolish.

Kathryn Jones is the editor of the Glen Rose Current. She welcomes reader comments and letters in response to this column. 

12 Responses to The Undercurrent: Are some city council members being frugal or foolish?

  1. Pat Condy Reply

    April 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Rather late into this debate but cant help commenting as follows:
    Leadership is about INFLUENCE. Management is about PRODUCTIVITY. The city council should busy itself with the former, the city employees from top to bottom are about the latter. Mix these roles up, and all you get is DRIFT – sideways, backwards, forwards, standstill, but all of it directionless, money-wasting and missionless. It takes a good chief employee to (a) ensure the elected council busies itself with what it is supposed to be doing so that it stays out of management and operations; and (b) deliver productivity from employees that is directed, prioritized, cost-effective, purposeful and compliant. Such a person does not come cheaply or, as they say, pay peanuts and get monkeys! And you pay what it is worth for the city operation to get professionalized and mission-driven. To pull/push it from an amateurish mom & pop shop type operation of the past to a modern, professional, business-minded and purposeful operation of the future is going to cost a lot more than peanuts.

    • Kathryn Reply

      April 29, 2013 at 4:26 pm

      I agree, Dr. Condy. Love the analogy!

  2. Jeff Williams Reply

    March 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Very well written — awesome… I applaud the city council for stepping out of the stone ages, hiring a professional to manage the city. You only get what you pay for. Glen Rose has always been a relic in its governance and ideology and someone like Mr. West is long overdue. His salary is inline with other small towns. His proactive leadership, open style management, and forward looking vision is what Glen Rose needs… The dinosaurs died many years ago folks! It is time to move forward! We do not make progress by being stuck in the past… Let the professionals do their jobs and watch the city flourish instead of stagnate… Make history instead of repeating it and living in history… Think with an open mind and be proactive!

  3. Gary Whittle Reply

    February 28, 2013 at 4:52 am

    Textbook way to use a reserve fund..a one-time purchase! Even though the CM satisfied a couple of council members, why sacrifice the operational budget at mid-year of the FY12-13? You can’t continue to operate “on the back of a Dairy Queen napkin”.

    Great perspective and article, Kathryn! And “good job” to the City’s staff…

    • Kathryn Reply

      February 28, 2013 at 11:28 am

      Thanks so much, Gary!

  4. Suzanne Gentling Reply

    February 21, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    No one wants inefficiency or wastefulness but keeping up to date technologically, these days, is an imperative, not a choice. Any tools a person, a business or a government entity can invest in that makes one more effective is a good investment.

  5. CHARLEY THOMAS Reply

    February 21, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    KATHRYN–AS WELL THOUGHT OUT AND PRESENTED AS ANYTHING YOU HAVE EVER WRITTEN. I AGREE WITH YOUR POINTS–THE CITY SHOULD USE TAXPAYER FUNDS SPARINGLY, BUT SPEND THEM AS NECESSARY TO OPERATE A MORE WELL-INFORMED AND MODERN COUNCIL AND CITY.

    • Kathryn Reply

      February 21, 2013 at 6:46 pm

      Thank you, Charley!

  6. Margaret Drake Reply

    February 21, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Wel done, Kathryn. keep em on their toes.

  7. Sandra Leutwyler Reply

    February 20, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    I’m not saying we don’t need Mr. West. Just not
    $96 k worth!!! I think that was a big mistake.

  8. Darrell Best Reply

    February 20, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    Kathryn, I think the big difference was that Chris wanted to afford Darrell the privacy he was entitled to in an executive session because it was a personnel matter. I don’t really think it is whining when you are lobbying for openness. There’s a lot more than meets the eye on this, you should sit down with Chris, I have, and discuss. He’s no longer opposed to the City Administrator, he’s just opposed to paying more than we are paying the County Judge, county Attorney, etc. I think its also important to note that the city tax rate is 39 cents per hundred, while the county’s rate is 34 cents…you have to look at what the county is providing versus the city and wonder what the city is doing with all of its money…just my 2 cents worth. Darrell

  9. Margaret Staples Reply

    February 20, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Kathryn, I agree with your article.

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