Last week in City Council-6/13-6/17

As I said in my preview of City Council items for last week, I guessed it would be an interesting week. I was not wrong. Here is a quick recap of the three important committee meetings from last week, as well as council itself.

Finance Committee

The hottest topic in local politics continues to be the potential tax increase. The efforts to get the tax increase on the ballot were stalled last week because, according Finance Committee Chairman Mark McKay, Mayor John Stanforth and Council President Randy Riley wanted to send the resolution and related ordinance to experts on tax legislation in Columbus to assure that both documents were solid. Ultimately, this seems like the right thing to do, as long as Council proceeds with the vote on July 7th as they are intending (it seems like this will not be an issue). Having the voters approve the new tax and then somebody issuing a legal challenge is something the City cannot afford. This needs to be a lesson for Law Director Brett Rudduck-this should have been done weeks ago. The resolution and ordinance that were originally presented were riddled with errors, but tax legislation is very complicated. Hopefully, this will prove to be a minor hiccup and Council will be back on track with the ordinance and resolution on July 7th.

Judiciary Committee

After the relatively calm Finance Committee meeting, Judiciary started off with a discussion about Wilmington’s feral cat issue. Both the Wilmington Area Humane Society (WAHS) and the Clinton County Humane Society (CCHS) had representatives there to help answer questions about their Trap-Neuter-Release programs (WAHS’s program is currently on hold until they get their new building). This was an informative, but long, discussion, and it ended with the Committee deciding that there was very little they could do about it.

After the discussion on feral cats, discussion began on the changes to how the money the city receives from the hotel lodging tax is distributed. As anticipated, this discussion got fairly heated, and unfortunately nothing was settled. However, one thing is very clear-the Convention and Visitors Bureau does not want to have to be accountable to council at large or the Finance Committee. The proposal on the table is to cut the funds automatically given to the CVB from the tax money from 90% to 50%, with almost all of the other money going back to the general fund to be distributed to organizations trying to promote tourism in the city. The CVB would be allowed to apply for any of the money not automatically allocated towards them.

Members of the CVB board, along with Executive Director Debbie Stamper, were on hand to express their displeasure. Treasurer Bob Heyob was the most vocal, spouting off questionable numbers about the effect that this would have on the CVB, including that it would cost city tourism around $2 million. When I pushed him to elaborate on it, he declined, but I believe that he was indicating that the CVB is the only reason there is any tourism in Wilmington. This is a bold and ridiculous claim. Council Member and CVB representative for the City Joe Spicer was also on hand to say that there is an “agenda” and that the money would go to pet projects. What these were, he did not say, but he seemed to be fine pursuing a conspiracy theory angle instead of actually participating in discussion. He also called past council members “dumb” for not fixing this legislation previously. The Judiciary Committee needs to be firm with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. For far too long, they have been able to give questionable research and numbers in relation to their impact on the county, and they have had a variety of expenditures that many non-profits would scoff at. Council needs to put their foot down and protect General Fund money, and the CVB needs to stop acting like their funds are unlimited and start acting as a protector for the limited tax dollars in our community.

Solid Waste Committee

Solid Waste Committee had a very productive and informative meeting about the future of our automated trash retrieval system. Sanitation Superintendent Braden Dunham was on hand to explain to the Committee, as well as those in attendance, some of the intricacies of the program. A few questions I have gotten about the program that Mr. Dunham answered:

  • There will not be an increased cost to those living in the city who only use one of the new trash bins (which will be provided at no cost to residents)
  • Residents that use more than one of the automated bins will be required to pay extra. For example, if it is $15 for trash pick-up per month for the first bin, it would be $7.50 for the second. I don’t know if these numbers have been finalized exactly, but these were the numbers discussed at Committee.
  • Residents will not have to pay for their own bins. The City will provide 95-gallon or 65-gallon bins, depending on the resident’s preference. The thought process is that many residents who do not have children at home may want the smaller, easier-to-handle bins.

The program will hopefully start in early September, with the goal roll-out date being September 1st. Soon, residents will receive more information in the mail about the program. I have also invited Mr. Dunham to talk for an interview for the blog and the podcast to help residents of Wilmington understand more about how this is going to work. If you have additional questions about the program, please email me at thewilmingtonbulletin@gmail.com.

I left the Solid Waste Commitee meeting impressed with these new advancements, especially Mr. Dunham’s efforts in saving the city money on the bins by working through multiple vendors. I look forward to the City pursuing more efforts like this to improve productivity and efficiency.

City Council

Surprisingly, City Council was not very exciting this week. Council is currently in a holding pattern for the tax increase issue, and no discussion was had regarding it. There was no discussion on the lodging tax or feral cats, but Mayor Stanforth did talk about the happenings of Solid Waste Committee in his section. The undeniable highlight of Council was when Alice Davidson, recent graduate of Laurel Oaks and Wilmington High School, was given a commendation and Key to the City by the Mayor as well as representatives of the Police and Fire Departments for her heroism in working to save a stranger’s life who had overdosed. It was a special moment for everyone at Council, and Ms. Davidson was very humble in accepting those praises.

 

The next Council meeting is July 7th at 7:30 pm. Hopefully, it will feature a 3rd Reading on the ordinance and resolution pertaining to the municipal income tax increase proposal. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be continuing to follow up on those issues, as well as providing an update on county politics. If you have questions for me or stories you are interested in, please email me at thewilmingtonbulletin@gmail.com

On an important week of City Council

Finance Committee

Finance Committee has done much of the legwork for the Municipal Income Tax increase proposal, which will have its third reading on Thursday (this, of course, is just to put it on the ballot in November). The next step for Finance is to continue to work with Mayor John Stanforth and his administration on spending and budget plans for next year. The administration will likely take the lead on this, but Finance Committee should be prepared to work on this with the administration, as there will need to be two spending plans created for the next year. Planning for the tax increase passing and failing in November is vital. It is important for voters to see what they will get out of the .5% income tax increase as we move towards November.

Judiciary Committee

On the Judiciary Committee agenda is the hotel lodging tax ordinance review and the employee pay scale review (as well as the feral cat issue-for more info on that, see the News Journal coverage). Both of these items are important as potential cost-saving measures for the General fund. The hotel lodging tax issue is in regards to funding towards the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. As it stands right now, there is a push from many council members for the CVB to defend their budget and expenditures, something they have not done in the past to City Council. This movement may make them more like a division of the City Government, where their budget will be reviewed with all other departments. Judiciary is currently looking at the ordinance that is on the books for how this money is to be used, but my guess is that this will end up being a call made by Finance Committee.

In regards to the employee pay scale, this is an issue that focuses on so-called “step raises,” a system where employees are given raises based on service time. This is a complicated issue that was brought up by Council Member Lonnie Stuckert as a potential cost saving measure. Judiciary will need to review how much this will actually save in the long run if the choose to eliminate or significantly alter these increases. Moving to a performance-based system can create HR issues due to performance reviews, etc., but an advantage of having Randi Milburn as the head of Judiciary is that this is where her expertise lies. Council should not move quickly on this without looking at the impact of all of the issues surrounding raises is investigated.

Solid Waste Committee

I have not written about Solid Waste Committee in this space yet, but there is one specific item that has piqued my interest. In their meeting this Thursday (June 16th), the Solid Waste Committee will discuss the final plans for automation of the garbage trucks. This will be a change that Wilmington residents will notice, because automated garbage trucks normally require special trash bins. Part of the rollout is going to include citizen education. This is something that may point to the city pursuing more innovative and progressive solutions to productivity. I look forward to hearing the Committee’s plans on how this will work.

City Council Meeting

As I said previously, the main item on Council’s agenda will be the 3rd reading on the resolution to place the .5% municipal income tax increase on the ballot in November. This will trigger the beginning of a campaign to pass the tax, as well as some potential campaigning against. The most important point for Council, as well as Law Director Brett Rudduck, is that they come better prepared for this meeting than the 2nd reading. At this point, Council can afford zero hiccups in their efforts to move this forward.
I will recap this week in City Council on Friday, including an update on the campaign to pass the tax moving forward. Until then, attend one of these meetings if you have time! If you have questions or have an idea for a story, email me at thewilmingtonbulletin@gmail.com.

 

EDITORIAL: The Time for Action is Now in Wilmington City Council

As I wrote last Monday, Wilmington is experiencing serious issues with it’s budget situation. The city budget for 2016 showed a deficit of $1.3 million, and the agreement between council seemed to be that they needed to act soon. This, after a November city council meeting where council said that they would continue the discussion and that they recognized how quickly it needed to happen.

We are now at the beginning of March. Today, March 2nd, the Finance Committee of council had just their second meeting of the year from my understanding. I decided to go, to see if the members of the Finance Committee were going to follow through with their promise to consider options.

The budget discussion started out with Mayor John Stanforth saying that he would be putting a plan for cuts to balance the budget. He then asked for permission from Auditor David Hollingsworth to work with Deputy Auditor Mary Kay Vance on budget issues. I am not sure why this conversation hasn’t happened yet, but Hollingsworth said that was fine, as he would not be available much until after tax season. Stanforth went on to say that the city was broke, and Hollingsworth agreed.

Councilwoman Kelsey Swindler subsequently brought the issue of putting a tax on the ballot–the same discussion that council was having last year, but that nobody has discussed this year. Finance Committee Chair Mark McKay said that he wanted to give the mayor time to show how the cuts would look before they moved on the tax issue. Swindler responded that these needed to be in motion at the same time. McKay subsequently said that he needs more info, like a public forum where the public could decide whether council should put forth a property tax levy or an earnings tax on the ballot. I immediately posed the question, “Isn’t the tax the public forum?” Councilwoman Milburn then said she wanted to learn more about the numbers for each tax. Swindler and McKay both said that they were leaning towards an earnings tax, partially because they believe it to be more fair. Mr. McKay eventually added that he has heard some people saying it is time to put it on the ballot. The committee asked Clerk of Council Marian Miller to provide them with estimated revenue from the potential taxes for discussion at their next meeting.

During the meeting, Councilman McKay continued to show that he is not willing to make the tough decisions when it counts. He was perfectly willing to allow the tax to be debated in public before the committee and/or council moved forward on it. As the meeting went on, he backed off several times as soon as he was challenged. Mrs. Milburn ran on a no tax increase platform, so it is difficult to tell how she truly feels about the tax increase. She seems to have decided it is acceptable to put the tax to voters.

I left the meeting wondering-if Mr. McKay and Mrs. Milburn had not been questioned on their reluctance to put a tax increase on the ballot, what would have been accomplished? Would we all be waiting for the mayor’s office to come up with potential budget cuts so the committee can pour over them? Time is of the essence on an issue like this. It would be a great disappointment if council missed a chance to get it on the November ballot because of feet-dragging. At the end of the meeting, Mr. McKay said that “we’ll try to keep Kelsey happy.” Hopefully, this is not the only impetus for action in the future.