City budget talks collapsed last Monday night in a meeting that saw the newly hired administrator say some members of the council were running the town outside the walls of city hall.
The allegation — which Administrator Mark Campbell also said after the meeting was the truth and not a claim — came as four expressed a desire to study the budget document further before approving an 8.3 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) for the workforce.
It was to have been the first reading of the document following a final work session on Nov. 14. On a 4-2 vote, council members Angie Gettys, Don Romines, Sheila Walker and Kevin Stilley hit the brakes. Campbell said some of the council wants to approve spot raises rather than a straight 8.3 percent across the board. The federal government announced earlier that the Social Security COLA will be 8.7 percent next year due to inflationary pressures.
Mayor Willy Walker asked why members voted no because he said there had been no opposition expressed during the last work session.
The COLA raise received vocal support from Alderman Sam Kelley, the mayor and Campbell. The city’s budget year begins Jan. 1.
During the meeting, some of the council majority said they were disappointed that Alderman Sam Kelley, chair of the personnel committee, had refused to call a meeting to discuss the salary issue.
“I want to say that I think overall I think the budget is very good, but I don’t believe the personnel end of it is dealt with like I think the way this board should deal with it,” said Board President Don Romines.
“I think we have committees, and we have closed sessions that we can talk about these kinds of things, hash it out and bring it back to the board and go forward as a one unit. And I think that is what we need to do.”
The four deny any outside meetings.
Kelley disagreed on the delay.
“The COLA is a cost of living adjustment,” he said. “That should be flat across the board. Everybody’s getting it. Everybody should get the same. It don’t matter if you are the top or bottom step. You should get that COLA at the same rate.”
The city’s annual budget begins Jan. 1.
The city also has a salary schedule that pays employees among factors that include job performance.
Stilley worried about any increased cost of health insurance that will be known later this year. The city pays health insurance premiums for employees, spouses and dependents.
Work on the budget began shortly after Campbell’s arrival and included meetings with department heads and work sessions with the council.
The latest upheaval comes amid an continued corrosive environment at city hall. Mayor Walker also butted heads over the lack of an employment agreement with Campbell, who was attending his fourth regular meeting as the head of city government. Campbell said many of the council’s decisions are made outside a meeting setting.
“I’m just saying that there’s a lot of meetings that are occurring around this town which gives everybody the perception that when you come to a council meeting, the votes are already decided,” he said.
Mayor Walker placed the blame on City Attorney Brad Eidson for not completing the contract and interference from the council to its wording. Eidson was out of town on Monday night. Walker said email correspondence between the city clerk and Eidson that started Sept. 7 hasn’t been finalized and a draft product wasn’t what he requested.
“Somebody at this table had our lawyer change it because he is not supposed to change anything like that himself. It’s real simple. Okay?” the mayor said.
Walker appoints a city administrator and it is ratified by the council. On Friday, Sept. 23 Campbell was introduced as the new administrator.
The mayor also wanted to know why Edison attended an Oct. 17 closed meeting to discuss a lawsuit filed by the city to recoup health insurance cost benefits from the mayor. The city hired an outside counsel from Jefferson City who reviewed the matter and filed the matter in Texas County Circuit Court.
On Dec. 20, a trial date will be set. That was decided at a Nov. 2 hearing.
In June, the City of Houston filed suit against Mayor Walker alleging he had received health insurance benefits totaling $10,695 without paying for them. On Oct. 24, the council filed a motion asking for a trial date. On Nov. 1, the council held a closed session to discuss the lawsuit.
In an earlier statement, Walker called the filing of the lawsuit a “political smear” and that he was never informed that he needed to pay for the coverage nor was it ever deducted from his check. He declined the offer to continue the coverage when the council determined that he was not eligible for the insurance, he said.
Walker’s attorney, Travis Elliott of Springfield, said at the hearing it was premature to set a trial date because he said no discovery work had been completed yet.
The city’s attorney, Nathan Nickolaus of Jefferson City, said the case isn’t complex and would take less than an hour to hear.
Elliott said he was not sure if his client would ask for a trial before a judge or a jury.
PRELIMINARY BUDGET DRAFTED FOR ’23
A tentative budget discussed by the Houston City Council last week would continue the roll out of a fiber-to-the-home high speed internet service and make improvements to lighting at Houston Memorial Airport.
The document was hammered out after meetings with department heads, drafting by City Administrator Mark Campbell and work sessions with the six-member council.
The airport work would be mostly paid by MoDOT grant funds — 90 percent of cost — funneled to it by the Federal Aviation Administration. The project is estimated about $800,000.
•Health insurance costs have been assigned to individual departments this year.
•The budget reflects one added employee already in the parks and recreation department.
•Expenditures for the fiber project are estimated at $522,900. Revenue is projected at $164,400. The city has applied for funding under the Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program administered by the Missouri Department of Economic Development to cover additional expenses. The money is part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
•Economic development efforts are estimated at $50,000.
•Parks, police and fire departments will benefit from a one-cent sales tax revenue. It is estimated to generate about $814,375 — half going for parks projects.
•Pine Lawn road paving is estimated at $19,700.
•A revenue driver for the city is sale of electricity. Revenue is pegged at about $4.05 million.
SMALL TRASH INCREASE OK’D
Max Murray, a municipal manager with GFL, which provides refuse service to the community appeared. Murray sought a rate increase of about 11 percent, based on the Consumer Price Index (6 percent) that excludes food and energy and a 5 percent increase for diesel fuel costs that are measured using a Department of Energy calculation for the Midwest. If it falls below $5 per gallon then that portion of the increase would cease.
A residential customer would see an increase of $1.36 per month under the calculation presented.
Murray said the firm had last raised rates in 2013. GFL has four years remaining under a five-year contract.
The company also is expected to propose a policy for handling temporary trash containers that tend to linger in place for a longer period of time than required.
TWO POLICE CADETS APPROVED
In other matters, members:
•Heard from Ross Richardson, president of the Houston Community Foundation, who thanked the city for its cooperation in a recent planting project of 1,000 daffodils in extreme cold temperatures. He especially thanked Campbell and Public Grounds Supervisor Bill Ramsey for their cooperation.
•Approved the participation of two cadets to a law enforcement academy as it works to fill its ranks. The Houston Police Department recently took applications and interviewed candidates. The cost is $5,000 per student, the expense of equipment and the student receives $15 an hour while attending the 15-week program. In return, the cadet must complete five years with the department. Police Chief Brad Evans said the move would help recruit people for spots that have been empty for about 1 ½ years. He said the shortage has put a strain on police officers.
•Authorized the purchase of $108,111 for electrical transformer inventory. The lead time for delivery is estimated at 46-72 weeks.
•Heard from Stace Holland, the new CEO at Texas County Memorial Hospital, who has more than three decades of rural healthcare experience. He offered his support in working with the city, said a planned surgery center would help with recruitment and would examine the need for mental health services in the region. Holland began duties last month.
•Approved a firm to provide restoration services in the event of catastrophic damage to its fiber system. It would respond within 24 hours.
•Heard Campbell report that a residential structure at West Highway 17 and Lilly Avenue would not be able to be rehabilitated due it is condition. The Bridges family donated the tract with a home to the city.
There were also questions about the removal of items from headstones at Pine Lawn Cemetery.
The council’s next meeting is 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5, at city hall.