Commissioners eye further budget tightening

At a special meeting last week to address the current budget, Apalachicola city commissioners moved forward on cost-cutting.

In his intro at the Oct. 17 meeting, Mayor Kevin Begos outlined possible revenue boosts, highlighted by an additional $50,000 infusion from Duke Energy, previously unbudgeted, that will come about with a new franchise arrangement between the energy company and the city.

The deal was up for a renewal a year ago, and had been batted back and forth between Duke and City Attorney Pat Floyd. “Basically, Duke’s new contract has been in limbo since January, that happens with legal issues,” said Begos.

In addition, the commissioners secured another $18,000 by cutting back on a $20,000 allocation earmarked to fund Floyd’s involvement with the ongoing “water wars” case, between Florida, Georgia and Alabama, now before a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senior U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Paul J. Kelly has scheduled oral arguments for Dec. 16 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and it was possible some of the money might have been used to fund Floyd’s trip to the hearing.

“Pat isn’t actually arguing (the case,” said Begos. “The state has spent tens of millions of dollars defending us (with) very experienced nationally-known lawyers who have specialized (in these cases).”

The new mayor said funding Floyd’s involvement in the water wars litigation, largely through observation and reporting, “seemed very excessive to me.” He said his discussions with seafood dealers Tommy Ward, Alice Leavins and Steve Rash all indicated they felt it was not a needed expense.

“My sense is we’re not accomplishing much spending $20,000,” he said. “This seems like a complete waste of money; we’re doing it for show. Van (Johnson) felt we needed to show we’re fighting for Apalachicola Bay.”

The commissioners voted unanimously to cut back the expenditure, and now pay only for Floyd to monitor the case on behalf of the city. Commissioner Brenda Ash was absent from the meeting.

Begos said the city should consider postponing a $40,000 expenditure to buy a new accounting software.

Commissioner Despina George, an accountant by profession, said she would review in closer detail what had been recommended in a recent city audit to buy the software, and report back.

“I don’t know enough about the accounting system to have an informed opinion,” she said. “It seems to me we don’t have the staff with proper training to (use a new) system.

“Right now we have someone with no training in books keeping the books,” George said. “We’re paying a bookkeeper $150 an hour for 12 hours a month to reconcile bank accounts. The accounting function is not ideal at this point.”

City Manager Ron Nalley said the existing system is antiquated. “We have three systems that don’t talk to one another,” he said.

The commissioners addressed the proposed hiring of three staffers with the planning and zoning department to replace retired code enforcement officer Wilber Bellew, outgoing assistant Courtney Bankston and the stepping down of Cindy Clark in her role as a contracted city planner.

The total allocated for the three staffers is $166,000 and while the commission did not vote to change that earmark, they approved a motion by Commissioner Adrianne Elliott for Nalley to make it a priority to hire a new code enforcement person and a full-time p and z position, and delay hiring an assistant, a move that could save roughly $36,000.

Commissioner Anita Grove argued it was important not to shortchange the planning and zoning function of city government.

“We have no p and z staff, we need to start building back our staff,” she said. “We need a professional. I feel like we’ve limped along; everybody in the planning department is now gone.

“We need staff that knows what they’re doing,” Grove said. “We’re down at least six positions.”

Grove took issue with the sweeping review of the budget being done by the new commissioners. “The budget was carefully drafted over many, many months based on a comprehensive plan we spent days developing. It doesn’t rely on personalities. It was worked out with all the departments, what they as professionals needed,” she said.

“Is there a systematic way we can look at what needs to be changed? I felt like it was a good budget,” she said.

Nalley suggested the commission review the entire budget, decide what if anything they wish to change, and then handle it in an all-encompassing budget amendment in the weeks ahead.

Grove agreed with Begos’ suggestion that it may be time to look at restoring some overtime payments to staff. Nalley had eliminated overtime for staffers over the course of last year, and noted at last week’s meeting that at least in one case, a staffer had been doubling nearly their entire yearly pay through overtime.

“We were in financial crisis, it's not for me to criticize decisions made last year. We need to revisit them in more detail,” said Begos.

“Both I and the commission want to have more oversight. We may want to do things differently,” he said.

“We haven’t had the professional management before, he’s doing a really good job,” said Grove. “We’ve got our debt under control. I feel like he’s really turned this ship around.”

Begos, who campaigned on a platform that included scaling back or eliminating the city manager position, was less enthusiastic, particularly about the powers to hire and fire the previous commission granted the city manager.

“The progress is not as much as you and certain groups say,” Begos told Grove. “Apalachicola still has a lot of things to fix, a lot of things to repair. Yes, progress has been made and Ron has helped with some of that part.”

Begos signaled he would like to take steps to reinstate the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency), in part to secure the tax incremental financing (TIF) from the county that earmarks property taxes within the downtown district entirely to the CRA. The city decided a few months ago to shut down the CRA beginning Jan. 1 in order to pay back, over the next five years,, about $160,00 in back TIF monies it owes the city agency

“Our contribution was supposed to be $75,000 this year, and what got overlooked is if we put in $75,000, the county gives us $48,000,” he said. “The county is ready to cut this check; this was in their budget. Then all of a sudden we have $123,000 we can spend on the Hill, on the Mill Pond.

“The stop signs on the Hill are so faded you don’t even know they’re red anymore,” Begos said. “This past money is a debt, but this current money is not really a current debt. I think it’s wrong that we haven’t kept our promise. We need to start keeping our promise and not just put it off for five years.”

The commission plans to address the CRA at a public meeting in the weeks to come.

Both Elliott and George said the city should move forward on sale of surplus property.

“We have $912,000 in properties, that is enough, if we sold all 15, enough to get us out of delinquent debt,” said Elliott, who said she would like to see selling it off with restrictive covenants that ensure the land would be used for workforce housing.

“I don’t see any reason not to revisit this issue and review the list of properties, it’s a commitment we made to the state,” George said.

She said the city also ought to consider more realistic proposals to put before the Florida Legislature, than the proposed stewardship bill, with its large multi-year price tag, in her opinion unlikely to be approved.

“We also need to consider the payment for the lobbyist,” she said. “We are sending a poor message to Tallahassee. I think they’d rather deal directly with our city officials. (New city attorney) Kristy Banks has indicated she would like to get into this as well.”