Fort Payne eyes tough choices in 2021

Participating in two Zoom meetings this week were City Treasurer Tricia Clinton-Dunne, City Clerk Andy Parker, Mayor Brian Baine, City Council President Walter Watson, City Attorney Rocky Watson and City Council members Lynn Brewer, Phillip Smith and John Smith. 

The Fort Payne City Council met Wednesday in a two hour and 15-minute Zoom work session to resolve some lingering issues that led them to postpone passing a new budget at their regular meeting the previous day.

Rather than the typical in-person meeting at City hall, both were livestreamed by FPTV due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. The council meeting can be viewed at https://player.lightcast.com/zMzM4UjM?fbclid=IwAR3sq6Ytofx3CBnYMB5vduExNh1W4XS_MHYlCfFemZsLEaijGw8vdc8he_I. The work session can be viewed at https://player.lightcast.com/zMDNyEDO.

Since the city is entering its fourth month without a new budget for the fiscal year, there’s urgency to act quickly. Council President Walter Watson asked whether the Council could pass a budget Tuesday while continuing to work on two parts of it: proposed cost-of-living pay increases for city employees and appropriations. The Council also discussed possibly restructuring use of the DeKalb Theatre and the Coal & Iron Building, as well as possibly selling DeSoto Country Club.

City Clerk Andy Parker said City Treasurer Tricia Clinton Dunne can’t install a partial budget in the city’s accounting software. There’s pressure to pass a final budget at the Jan. 19 regular meeting since department managers need to know what they’ll have available before they can focus resources. The city is still looking at a budget operating $25,000 in the red.

A cost of living raise averages $300,000 a year. This year’s insurance premiums went up 5.5% so for the city to absorb that cost would average $130,000. Those things are in the budget being considered, but Council members wanted to take another look at them before signing off on it.

Also, there are some departments and individuals in the city whose pay needs to be reviewed – particularly the fire and sanitation departments. Surrounding municipalities pay more for these jobs, as do most private employers. Mayor Brian Baine is surveying what others pay.

“It’s not right that you can make more money flipping burgers than being a firefighter,” Council member Phillip Smith said.

Council member John Smith agreed, saying, “They’re the lowest paid in this area already. It’s going to compound it by not giving a step raise. We can’t keep seeing people leave Fort Payne for something that pays better. How do we do it? That’s on us.”

The Council also touched on whether to use remaining bond money to build new soccer fields, purchase industrial property that is already under contract, pay for a new fire truck coming in 2022 and/or renovate the interior of the old City Hall used by the police force. They’re also likely re-allocating $10 million they’d earmarked to match state funds for repairing Joe’s Truck Stop/adding a railroad overpass.

There’s only so much taxpayer money available and even less of an appetite for raising taxes or borrowing more money. The only real option left is to make tough choices about what to fund while working toward a streamlined budget for next year and simultaneously growing the tax base with new retailers.

Slashing expenses means possibly reassigning some city employees to different departments, redirecting the use of take-home cars and possibly reducing money given annually to outside groups. Clinton-Dunne said appropriations started at $806,750 but were trimmed down to $720,000 by cutting funding to the Fort Payne Depot Museum by $15,000, the Wills Valley Model Train Club by $3,000, the Liberty Learning program by $4,000 and cutting special appropriations by $14,500.

The Council on Aging, public library, Tourism DeKalb, CED Mental Health, Fort Payne Board of Education, Fischer Rescue Squad, Landmarks of DeKalb County, Chamber of Commerce, Commercial Development and Economic Development authorities, ARC, Children’s Advocacy Center, and Fort Payne Main Street do not see their city funding reduced as the proposed budget stands.

The Council plans to get cost estimates on building the new soccer fields and an appraisal of the value of the golf course while passing ordinances to raise sewer and sanitation rates and challenging departments with revenue streams to increase those.

Council member Watson said the city can only continue to operate under the status quo for two more months “without going belly up. I know this has been tough and grueling, but we won’t be in the same place next year. We’ve got to operate really tight and stay within the new budget.”

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