Looking beyond the budget
By Amelia Hipps-Political Contributor for Wilson Living Magazine
Tuesday night, the Lebanon City Council finally passed the first reading of the fiscal year 2013-2014 budget by a vote of 4-1.
Ward 2 Councilor Fred Burton, who had been a “present, not voting” for the past several meetings finally voted in favor it, along with Ward 3 Councilor Rob Cesternino, Ward 4 Councilor Joe Hayes and Ward 5 Councilor Tick Bryant. Ward 1 Councilor Lanny Jewell was not there. The lone no vote came from Ward 6 Councilor Kathy Warmath.
While passing the budget on first reading is a good step in the right direction so the city can move forward, here are a few takeaways that I hope the council and mayor will remember going into the next fiscal year.
- Have the finance department generate monthly reports of revenue and expenditures. At one time, this was done. It made for a lot of colorful exchanges between then Mayor Don Fox and then Ward 3 Councilor William Farmer. Regardless, the point is the reports gave the council, everyone in city government and the public a fairly up-to-date status of the city’s finances. This should be implemented as soon as possible.
- Review and modify the retirement benefits policy. Currently, if you work for the City of Lebanon for a minimum of 10 years and are employed at the time of your retirement at age 65, you qualify for lifetime health, life, and vision insurance for you and your spouse. It’s a sweet deal. However, the minimum number of employment years should be lengthened to at least 15, possibly 20, for all new hires beginning Jan. 1, 2014. Current employees should be grandfathered in to be fair.
- Increase the amount employees must pay for health insurance. Earlier this year, I was called on the carpet for suggesting employees pay the full percentage increase in their premiums. That may be too much, but at least 25 percent of the increases should be passed on to them. The $40 for individual and $160 for family coverage currently being paid is way below what employees in the public sector pay. And, yes, many of those make on par what city employees do.
- Remove health benefits for city council members. Technically, city council members are part-time employees. Therefore, in my opinion, they should be treated like part-time employees and not receive health insurance benefits. Nor should they be entitled to life-long insurance benefits after serving only two terms.
- Assign each councilor as a liaison to a department and/or line-item expense. If this were done, as Ward 3 Councilor Rob Cesternino suggested, councilors could keep their colleagues informed each month as to how the departments are doing. In addition, come budget time next year, they would have months of tracking data and information at the ready.
- Present the budget figures in a way that the common person can understand them. For the past several years, we’ve heard each year that $2 to $2.9 million out of the “rainy day fund” (money from the sale of the electric company years ago) would be needed to balance the budget. However, each and every year the city has managed to balance the budget without using anywhere near those amounts – if at all. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never understood this type of budgeting.
- Use the “rainy day fund” for one-time capitol expenditures and pay it back over time. I wrote about this the other week. Using the $9 million in this account to pay for things like infrastructure improvements (roads, drainage solutions, sewage and water lines, new vehicles and equipment, sidewalks, etc.) is a wise use of the money. It’s the way many households improve their property. They save the money to repair the roof, add a room or remodel one. Once it’s done, they start putting money back into the savings account for the next project. Someone please explain to me why this can’t be done at the city level.
If the city leaders would take just these seven steps, I think next year’s budget process could go a lot smoother and quicker. In addition, I think the City of Lebanon would have seven, better-informed elected officials representing us, which in turn should mean better-informed citizens come election time.
Only time will tell if I’m correct or not.