WILMINGTON — City council passed a budget Thursday night, calling for $9.1 million in general fund spending — the fund council has the most discretion over — and less than $39.5 million between all funds.
The vote was 6-1, with Wilmington Council member Loren Stuckert dissenting.
Stuckert said he continued to vote against the budget because he, in good faith, couldn’t tell people council was being wise by passing budgets that call for a $1 million deficit.
Stuckert, whose term is expiring and who lost an election challenge for president of council, said he intends to “bend (mayor-elect John Stanforth’s) ear as long as he will let me.”
Stuckert suggested the city should reconsider how to offer services in order to save money and pointed to the street maintenance and repair fund, which is only projected to spend $50,000 of an almost $1 million budget on street maintenance. He stressed that he knows street department employees are working, but he’d rather see more time and money spent on street maintenance than on other projects.
“I probably look at the budget differently than some of my fellow councilmen,” said council member Rob Jaehnig. “I always look at it as a starting point. … We have to have a place to start.”
Jaehnig said he takes issue with council not continuously dealing with the budget except at budget time. Typically, over the course of a year, additional appropriations are made, adding to expenditures.
“The reality is, in my opinion, we need to be addressing revenue and expenditure issues throughout the year,” said Jaehnig, who added, “I’m just as guilty as anybody else.
“We set the budget, complain about the fact that we don’t have enough carryover” then spend the carryover, he said.
Jaehnig also said that his normal stance is to focus on job creation, not shrinking the city, which he said has 30 percent fewer staff members than it did eight years ago.
“I wanted to talk to John (Stanforth),” but couldn’t, said Joe Spicer, who switched his vote from against on the first reading to in favor by the third. “It was going to pass anyway. … At least get (Stanforth) in there and see if he’s got ideas about what we can cut and what we want to do.
“The bottom line is, if we’re spending more than we’re bringing in, we still have a spending problem,” Spicer continued. “I think we need to take a hard look. Are we right sized, and is that telling us our city’s too big for what we’re trying to do?”
Spicer said Stuckert was right when he estimated a deficit last year but nothing has been done. Now, the city has to raise taxes, which he opposes, or it has to look at how it spends, Spicer said.
Documents presented in November by City Auditor David Hollingsworth estimates less than $7.8 million in revenue for the general fund, meaning that the budget projects drawing $1.3 million from its carryover. Other city documents show that the carryover is currently projected to be $1.6 million. Though the carryover figure will change as the city cleans up its end-of-year finances, that leaves about $400,000 (due to rounding) at the end of 2016 for future budgets, which makes a similar deficit budget impossible to pass.
According to state statutes, a city cannot spend more than it anticipates in revenues and has in its accounts.
Some city officials and council members have previously discussed placing an earnings tax on the ballot, but it wasn’t discussed Thursday. The deadline to place such an initiative on the ballot is Dec. 16, which is prior to the next council meeting.
In their 2015 campaigns, mayor-elect Stanforth and council member Randi Milburn both said they were opposed to tax increases. At Thursday’s meeting, Spicer told the News Journal he was opposed to taxes, and Stuckert said he wasn’t opposed to a tax increase in principle but thought all other options should be exhausted first in light of residents’ economic statuses.
“In my opinion, by not having the discussion (on taxes) with the citizens and not including them in the process … then we’re actually taking away their right and their opinion in what the city needs to do,” said Jaehnig. “The only decision council can make is to either have the discussion or to say no.”
Jaehnig added that leaves Stanforth “in a position (where he must) take apart the city piece by piece.”
Without taxes, Jaehnig said, the city will have to look at its streets, police and fire departments.
“You can fire all of the (general) administration and still not” solve the budget deficit, he said.
The general fund’s largest expenses include transfers to other funds, which total $5,016,695.28, more than half of all general fund expenses. Those transfers include funds that have their own property tax levies, such as the parks, police and fire funds.
Reach Nathan Kraatz at 937-382-2574, ext. 2510 or on Twitter @NathanKraatz.