The Satellite Beach City Council met on Wednesday, August 8, 2012 to consider the “revised” budget submitted by the Interim City Manager, Ayn Samuelson.
As we often do, we are going to offer observations on the meeting. We won’t comment on everything as it is difficult to cover a meeting that lasted over five hours.
Probably the most important thing was “da joint was packed.” The Council chambers were filled to the gills with people standing against the walls and in the foyer. When people kept coming, the city management opened up the Civic Center. The quick reaction to the number of people seemed to be coordinated through and by City Clerk Leonor Olexa and the city workers who are always present at the meetings. While the staff’s reaction to the swelling crowd could have come from experience, we want to note their quick, decisive and effective action. The meeting was not delayed or skipped a beat and much of that was due to Leonor and the city workers. They should be applauded for what they did.
As the crowd settled in, it was impossible to not to notice Councilman Billman was not present.
Mayor Ferrante called the meeting to order and welcomed everyone. Mayor Ferrante informed the crowd Billman was on a plane coming into Orlando and would be approximately 30 minutes late. As it turned out, he was much later in arriving to the meeting but we believe his being absent may have actually helped keep things calmer than they might have been.
Ferrante explained the purpose of the meeting was to review the “budget as proposed by the City Manager.” (This becomes important later.) He also said the proposed millage rate as set by the Council in the last meeting could go down, but not up. Councilwoman Denan echoed the comment on the millage rate going down but not up later in the meeting. However, that is not the case. The millage rate can go up, but there are financial costs to the city for it to do so.
It is somewhat disheartening to us to see the members of the Council itself do not understand the process.
Moving forward, the Mayor had decided to break up the discussion on the budget into four groups within the budget.(We are not going to make comments on all four groups.) First up was the one most people had come for – the budget of the Police Department.
Chief Pearson gave the numbers on his budget. It seemed to us that the Council members were prepared for the crowd who appeared to be mostly against the cuts in the proposed budget which would include three people.
At one point, Chief Pearson was asked if he supported the cuts made in the proposed budget. He said he did not and gave facts and figures supporting his reasoning. Those facts and figures were quite impressive and showed a department head who not only had done his homework, but was ahead of the curve for the questions the Council members may have asked.
Some of those facts included:
The proposed cuts would gut the city;s FDLE / State Accreditation program. The City had recently been evaluated under this program with the evaluator saying the performance of the city’s police was “near flawless.” That program would disappear.
Commander Brad Hodge’s job impacts the department far greater than just an administrator. The number of cases the city investigates would be affected.
The training of officers would be decreased. Not only would the cuts affect the training officer (Hodges) but his back-up and the back-up to the back-up. In essence the city would end up with less trained officers on the streets.
Evidence and case files would be affected as the administration position being eliminated handles the files and other investigative support.
Additionally, City Manager Samuelson said keeping the proposed budget level of the July 23, 2012 meeting would be an additionaly $9.00 per $100,000.00 of assessed home value.
We have to say that we went into the meeting hoping Chief Pearson would present some sort of case on the cuts and the effects on his department. We have taken the position the cuts need to be justified or the previous budget level needed to be justified. We are in the minority, but we aren’t for keeping budgets high simply out of sentimentality.
In our opinion, Chief Pearson made an decisive case for the budget being kept at the July 23rd budget levels.
We were impressed by Chief Pearson’s statements and grasp of his facts.
However, we were less than impressed with his statement that he did not support the cuts. We have covered this before, but if Chief Pearson did not support the cuts, then his input into the budget should reflect that. This is especially true when the budget process allows differing numbers between the City Manager and a Department Head to be presented to the City Council. There are those who have said that Pearson had to go along with the cuts printed in the budget or else face consequences from the City Manager or the City Council.
We disagree. The column in the budget for “Department Head Recommends” is there to allow the discussion of differing numbers between the City Manager and the Department Head. There are going to be times when the Department Head believes the numbers proposed by the City Manager are less than they need. There are going to be times when the Department Head believes he can do with less than the City Manager wants to budget.
It would be one thing if a Department Head had to go behind someone’s back or do some sort of “whistleblowing” to let it be known that he disagreed with the budget. We could understand the trepidation of a Department Head then, but not here. Not in this case.
The mechanism is in place for the differing figures. The idea of any department head not taking advantage of that mechanism is an abrogation of their duties and responsibilities to the people of Satellite Beach.
During the Chief’s presentation, the first “what the heck?” moment took place.
Vice Mayor Scott Rhodes asked “can we just cut the union members’ pay?” This brought laughter from the crowd who caught immediately you cannot cut pay in a negotiated contract. Honestly, we think the question was one with merit, but badly worded. If Rhodes had asked “can we negotiate a reduction in pay or benefits with the union?” no one would have said anything. It was certainly a gaffe on the part of Rhodes, but it was not serious until Councilwoman Denan began to berate the crowd for snickering.
Denan said the her husband’s pilot union had been asked to take a pay cut, then a renegotiated contract, then a layoff, and then the airline shut down.
“You should not snicker at the question when you don’t know what you are talking about,” she told the audience.
That did not go over well with the audience.
What made her comment even worse was that she had not heard the question Rhodes had asked correctly. She actually was going after the audience based on her misunderstanding of what was said.
NOTE TO COUNCILWOMAN DENAN: The citizens of Satellite Beach are not your children to berate and chastise as you see fit.
This point was emphasized by a friend of ours who, during citizen comments, reminded the Chairperson in the form of Mayor Ferrante that Robert’s Rules of Order do not allow members to directly address the Council members, neither could the Council members directly address the audience. It is up to the Chair and to the Chair only to determine the conduct of both the members of the Board as well as the audience.
Councilwoman Denan repeated her commenting toward the audience later, and Mayor Ferrante stopped it. He also stopped outbursts from the crowd in applauding and other expressions. It was a good move on his part.
Eventually, after over twenty citizen comments, the Council debated a little more and then decided to send the Police Department budget back to the Police Department and the City Manager for revision to eliminate the cuts as they affected the three employees.
In the crowd there was great happiness, but we weren’t as thrilled with the direction given the City Manager.
It all comes back to the City Charter and the way the budget is handled.
In a previous post, we had postulated the budgetary process was not being conducted according to the City Charter. Several people had told us the process had to take into account a hard date for getting a proposed milage rate to the County Property Appraiser.
In a comment here on Raised on Hoecakes, former Councilwoman Lorainne Gott wrote:
So the July 23 meeting approved a tentative millage rate to meet the Property Appraiser’s deadline, but it did not approve the City Manager’s proposed budget. Section 6.03(a) has not been violated yet, but a detailed budget as proposed by the City Manager must be presented at the August 8 meeting.
3. After the City Manager’s proposed budget is presented, Section 6.03(b) requires the Council to consider and revise that budget as it deems necessary. It is during this stage that the Council also establishes the final millage rate to support its proposed budget. (emphasis ours)
While we aren’t sure if how we got to the point of this revised budget being presented to the City Council, at the very least, we will acknowledge and agree with Ms. Gott that the budget presented to the Council on August 8, 2012 was done under section 6.03 of the city charter which reads:
(a) City manager’s proposed budget. No later than the first regular city council meeting in August, the city manager shall present a proposed budget to the city council for all operations of city government for the next fiscal year. In addition to any other(s) the city council may request, the proposed budget shall contain the following components:
(1) The city manager’s budget message explaining the important features, financial issues, policies and proposed policy changes, and objectives of the proposed budget;
(2) A budget summary presenting an overview of sources and amounts of anticipated revenues and expenditures; and
(3) A detailed budget presenting the specifics of all anticipated revenues and expenditures.
(b) City council’s proposed budget. After considering and revising the city manager’s budget as it deems necessary, the city council shall adopt a proposed budget and determine tax requirements under that budget. (emphasis ours)
Once the City Manager presents their detailed budget to the City Council, it is the Council – not the City Manager or department heads – that must make the changes in the budget.
We can find no support for the Council sending the proposed budget back to the City Manager once the detailed proposed budget is presented to the City Council.
We could be wrong. If we are, we hope someone out there will tell us and we can correct it, but we don’t see it.
It is our opinion the City Council acted outside of the City Charter.
After the Council vote sending the Police section of the budget back to the City Manager, the meeting took a break during which many of the people left. This saddened us somewhat as there were still important items in the budget but the people leaving did mean people could all sit in the Council Chamber.
It is appropriate the Fire Department is responsible for the EMT’s and emergency medical care in the city as we can only say the discussion of the Fire Department’s budget was a bloodbath.
The first issue was a state mandated pension requirement to the Fire Fighters under Chapter 175 of the Florida State Statutes. In past budgets, because the state contribution was a direct pass through from the state to the city to the fire fighter pensions, previous City Manager Mike Crotty had not included the monies in revenues and then as a disbursement. A small note on the budget page for the Fire Department said the line item was now being included in the budget.
There was blood in the water.
Councilman Billman, who was now in the room, went after City Finance Manager Brenda Raver as if she was being crossed examined in a courtroom. It seemed clear to us that she had disagreed with Crotty’s decision to handle the line item in that manner, but she was not going to go back and throw him under the proverbial bus. It was also her work that was being criticized and she became so flustered it was painful to watch.
Ms. Raver finally said previously leaving the line item out of the budget was against “generally accepted accounting procedures.”
This seemed to be a case to us where there was a mistake made previously in many areas. If Crotty had directed Raver to go against professional standards, we need to correct that make sure it doesn’t happen again. At the same time, the incident gave Billman a perfect chance to prove his political contention that Crotty and previous City Councils had led the citizens astray. Councilmembers Denan and Rhodes also blamed the auditors for not catching the mistake adding fuel to their call for another auditing firm.
It is hard for us to say that leaving the line item out of previous budgets was correct if doing so was against “generally accepted accounting principles.” If the rules say the item should be in the budget, it should be in the budget. In some ways the error is innocuous. It is simply the state paying the city who immediately transfers the money into the pension fund for the Fire Department. (A similar provision exists for the police.)
We don’t know how else to say this, but as we listened to Councilman Billman, we got the impression we were watching a bully kick a person who was down in the mud.
Not content with going after Brenda Raver, Councilman Billman turned his focus onto Chief Don Hughes. At issue were incentives for additional courses, training and certification for personnel in the Fire Department. The incentives were recommended by a previous study and are based on a percentage of the salary of the individual. Previous councils had chosen to allow the incentives to continue, but Billman took issue with them. One of the incentives was based on the ability to understand, operate, maintain, etc hydraulics on fire engines. We had to think that having more people know this is a good thing, but because the incentives are based on a percentage of the individual’s salary, Billman said he couldn’t understand how Chief Hughes was getting the most benefit from the incentive but not doing the actual work.
Chief Hughes explained the incentives were the recommendations of the aforementioned committee and he was never directed to change them by previous City Councils.
Once again, there was blood in the water. For the next five minutes, we got to listen to Billman explain how flight pay in the Air Force worked and how he had lost flight pay as his hours in the cockpit decreased.
All the while, Hughes repeatedly said, “I have no objection to changing the incentive program.”
It did not matter. Let the beatings continue.
It is not that Billman may or may not have a valid point. It is that once the point is made and the person in front of him agrees, it is time to fix it, let it go and move on.
It was painful to watch.
During the review of the legislative budget, a friend of ours noted that there was an additional item from the July 23, 2012 budget which provided for laptops for each member of the City Council. The theory was that instead of printing, assembling and delivering meeting agendas, informational packets, etc., the Council could receive the information via a laptop.
The problem, as our friend pointed out, was there was a “tail” to the purchase of a $650 laptop for each Council member – a software tail which would allow Council members to annotate on the agendas, packets, etc. Such software would add require a corporate license of $1000 for the five Council members. However, the CAPEG report had already requested a software upgrade which would be about $12,000 for the entire city. Our friend’s point was that if the city was looking to say money, this was a line item of $5,500.00 would now be at $15,000.00 minimum. Furthermore, he said, a $650 laptop is fairly powerful if all you want to do is read pdf files and email. If anything, get an iPad for $550.00 or if the Council was simply looking for a reader, then get a cheap tablet or a netbook for $300.00.
A reader of the Raised on Hoecakes came up with a different idea. He said that as the Council had talked all night about “sharing the pain,” he thought the Council members should use or provide their own laptops.
Which brings us to the second part of our post title: “Disconnects.”
Immediately after making the suggestion for the Council to supply their own laptops and “share the pain,” the idea was savagely attacked by Councilwoman Denan who said she wasn’t getting paid for being a Council member and she resented the idea she needed to give anything to the city.
We kept thinking of the disconnect between “I resent the idea” and “sharing pain.” It made no sense to us that the idea was from a gentleman who has donated thousands of hours in service of the city, never asking or demanding anything had offered a reasonable idea and was chastised for it. We just couldn’t wrap our mind around the disconnect between demanding cuts for everyone to “share the pain” and then “resenting” when a citizen comes up with a way to “share the pain” to the members of the City Council.
We couldn’t understand the Council’s berating of the Finance Director for not following professional standards in accounting, but at the same time not following the law on the budget process itself.
We couldn’t help but reflect on the disconnect between the audience being berated and lectured to by Councilwoman Denan and Councilman Billman in violation of Robert’s Rules of Order by which they demand the Mayor abide when dealing with citizens.
We were struck at how Councilman Billman went on a long harangue on “facts” and how people should be behave yet he feels comfortable with his public heating of the Finance Manager and the Fire Chief. (To say nothing of the threat within his email to the City Manger.)
We couldn’t understand how Department Managers said they were stretched to the limit and how the Council continually complained about departments not getting additional work done.
We see a disconnect between some of the good ideas the Council and individual members propose are simply overshadowed by the means and methods those ideas are presented. If you want to lead and get people to listen, don’t treat them badly or like 5 year olds.
Time and time through the night, we kept thinking, “another disconnect between what the Council members say and what they do.”
We have to say that we only took part in the politics of the City on a superficial level prior to the last election. We were “lurkers.” That is something we are not thrilled with, but we cannot go back in time. We recognize previous councils may have made and probably did make mistakes such as the ones the members of the current sitting Council makes.
For us, this is not “political.” This is not about “us versus them.”
This is about what is right.
Not “right” as in “our opinion is right,” but rather the rightness of treating people with common decency and respect. It is the rightness of not being hypocritical when yelling about the conduct of others without looking at what you are doing.
To us, it doesn’t matter who is sitting up on the dais with the seal of Satellite Beach hanging flanked by the flags of the United States and the State of Florida.
It is a matter of what is right, and what is not.
We can only say that on Wednesday, we saw some “right” and a lot of “wrong.” While we understand that politics is a dirty business, in many ways we were a little embarrassed for the community.
At around 11:15 PM, the meeting adjourned with the promise to come back for more budget talks on August 30, 2012. As the Council members, department heads, and eleven remaining citizens in the audience filed out of City Hall, we couldn’t help but wonder if what we witnessed was how the City should be run. We had to wonder if we haven’t gone back to beating on each other for political gains.
We hope not, but we believe we have.