Conflicting budgets presented at hearing

Published 9:59 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A public hearing to discuss the city of Selma’s upcoming financial budget resulted in two competing budgets being presented and a delayed discussion on the city’s finances.

Selma Mayor Darrio Melton started to present an $18.7 million budget before City Treasurer Ronita Wade said she never gave Melton a revenue forecast that high.

Melton said he based his budget — which included a $300,000 surplus and raises for approximately 100 employees — off projections given to his office by Wade.

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“If the numbers are where they are in the budget, there wouldn’t be a need to address sales tax,” Melton said, referring to prior comments he made about possibly raising taxes to generate more revenue for city operations.

When asked where the projections came from, Melton said Wade “presented the number of $18.7 million in revenues.”

Wade said those projections were not final numbers from her office and called the figures “a draft of drafts captured at a certain point in time.”

City Councilwoman Angela Benjamin asked Melton where the numbers came from and if there was collaboration between him and the treasurer’s office.

Melton said his office received multiple projections from the treasurer, and he “would be happy to talk in executive session with the council about personnel matters.”

Benjamin responded: “I don’t want to discuss personnel. I just want to know where the budget came from.”

Wade said her office has been short-staffed due to medical emergencies, and she “received emails from the chief of staff [Ollie Davison] saying send me what you have.”

“I’m the only other person bonded to handle cash in my office. Initially, when they asked at the end of August, I said give me a couple more days,” Wade said. “I realized I was in over my head.”

Wade said she went back and updated numbers after her assistant returned to work and presented a roughly $17.6 million budget to the council.

“That’s why this version is called a draft,” Wade said.

“In the past — we aren’t doing anything differently — we have updated … I have to make it as accurate as possible. I never gave $18 million in the budget. It’s been a long time since the city has generated $18 million in revenue … There is no way I would present to you an $18 million budget when I handle the day-to-day finances and know we don’t have those kinds of revenue.”

Councilman Carl Bowline expressed his frustration during the meeting about being presented two budgets.

“Can I have one budget so I can make better use of my time and your time as well,” Bowline said. “I need one budget I can look at and make the decisions I need to make. Other than that — I’m burning daylight.”

The meeting was soon adjourned after there was no consensus on the budget.

Melton said after the budget hearing he was caught off guard by Wade preparing a separate budget.

“That was shocking to me. The state law says the mayor brings the budget before the council, not the treasurer,” Melton said. “In that case, I can have all kinds of department heads presenting budgets.”

Melton said he thought the revenue numbers seemed high but not especially considering the city’s audit last year showed $18.2 million in total revenue.

“When we saw that, I thought maybe she’s in line,” Melton said.

Melton said his office would amend the budget if needed based off new projections.

“Until I get some correct numbers, it would be irresponsible to present a budget,” Melton said.

The mayor said once he entered office, he amended the budget to save the city money and the city continues to look for ways to save money.

“We are still trying to find ways to do more with less,” Melton said. “That’s what we are looking at with this budget, without looking to raise sales tax or any other taxes for budget purposes.”

Melton has talked in the community about possibly raising gasoline taxes to fix streets and letting people vote on a property tax increase for public safety and infrastructure.

Last year, the Selma City Council approved a $17.4 million budget that included a 10 percent raise for first responders, which cost approximately $500,000.

The council paid for those raises by refinancing a 2011 pension warrant, which resulted in a one-time savings of more than $600,000. Wade advised against those raises at the time calling them “fiscally irresponsible.”

Council President Corey Bowie rescheduled a new budget hearing for Thursday at 7 p.m. following the council’s work session. It wasn’t immediately clear if a revised budget would be ready by then.

Melton said his office would work with the council to give them the information they need to vote on a budget before the city’s new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.