By JENNIFER HORTONThe Wilson Post Work sessions on the City of Lebanon’s proposed budget for 2009-2010 have devolved into a test of wills, of sorts, with city councilors seeking the layoffs of several employees who supported the current and former mayors. Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Huddleston produced a list during Wednesday night’s session that targeted City Liaison Sue Akins Siens, hired by former Mayor Don Fox; Personnel Director Bill Durham, a Fox and Craighead supporter; a custodian at City Hall identified by Craighead as the mother of former Ward 2 Councilor Annette Stafford. Stafford was defeated by Huddleston for the council position. Also targeted were a custodian in the Public Works Department, identified by the mayor as a Fox supporter; a secretary in engineering identified as a Craighead supporter, an administrative secretary at the Jimmy Floyd Family Center whose duties include handling corporate accounts and who Craighead said is Fox’s daughter-in-law, and a custodian at the JFFC who is the step-mother of Durham, the personnel director. “I have tried and reached my hand out and be cooperative since day one,” Craighead said, referring to council. He noted he recognizes there will be differences of opinion but even so everyone should be able to discuss those differences in a civil manner and to work together for the betterment of the city. Although the economic recession has affected Lebanon, Craighead and Siens noted that the city is still in better shape than other places and has been able to provide much for citizens with the lowest property tax among several nearby cities. The current property tax rate in Lebanon is 33.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. (The City of Mt. Juliet does not have a city property tax and relies instead on sales, business and beer taxes.) Craighead said he has taken a different approach to producing the budget this year. The 2008-2009 budget was $20.3 million, arrived at after council and former Mayor Fox made changes and cuts. Craighead said he and Commissioner of Finance Russell Lee, working with department heads and employees, have taken the ’08-’09 budget figure and reduced that further to a proposed $19 million for fiscal year ’09-’10. That represents, the mayor said, a reduction of $1.35 million in expenditures from last year’s budget. The cuts were reached, he said, in several ways. They include eliminating jobs that were vacant that were still on the books, and spreading the duties of jobs left when people leave the city’s employment among other workers. In addition, departments have been reorganized and some changes in personnel have been made. Craighead has suggested that some projects and services performed in the past by vendors under contract be taken over by city employees. Above all that, the mayor said city employees have been asked for, and have agreed to, make sacrifices to try and keep anyone from being laid off. Among the things employees will not see in the new budget as it now stands are raises, cost of living adjustments, or COLAs; Christmas bonus, service awards and reduced healthcare benefits. City workers this year have been asked to pay more for their part of health insurance. Craighead said city employees will be asked to pay $40 a month for individual health insurance with the city picking up $475 a month for that person. The cost for a family would be $140 a month out of the employee’s pocket with the city paying $1,300 a month for that family in health insurance. “They’re contributing after they’ve given up everything else,” he said of city workers. They have also agreed to these changes, Craighead and Siens said, with the understanding that they are temporary and will hopefully keep anyone from being laid off.
The situation with Lebanon’s proposed budget, and that of many other places nationwide, is that Lebanon has mainly relied on a low property tax rate and sales taxes (along with business and beer/liquor taxes), and now that the economy is in recession those revenues have not come in as they have in the past. The mayor noted that sales taxes in Lebanon are $1.2 million less so far, and when combined with other decreasing revenues has made the city’s financial status some $2.5 million short.
“We still have expenditures to contend with, but we don’t have the revenue. The budget is the worst situation in Lebanon in 40 years,” he said. To help remedy the situation, Craighead has proposed instituting a garbage collection fee of $6.50 which would not take effect until September. The city presently provides garbage collection free to citizens. There are other cities that provide the same service for free, also, but they also have a higher property tax rate. Some cities do not offer garbage collection meaning residents in those locations must pay a private service. The mayor has proposed instituting a storm water fee of $2.50 a month, not by choice, but rather because the city is required to resolve its long-standing sewer and storm water run-off problems. Craighead said this was a mandate by the U.S. Congress which did not provide funds to help the city meet the requirements. In the past it has been funded through growth in the city, but with the downturn in the economy that has become very difficult. He has also proposed an increase in the city’s property tax rate of 3-1/2 cents to 37 cents, the same rate as in 2008. If approved, it would be the first such increase since 1992 when it was 78 cents. Craighead has proposed an increase in membership fees at the JFFC and an increase in cemetery service fees at the city’s Cedar Grove Cemetery which will allow the city to set aside money for a fund that would ensure care and maintenance of the cemetery in the future. Finally, the mayor noted the city has $9 million in reserve funds, but the city should be careful in using the money. If the economy gets worse, he said, the city may have no other alternative but to use some of the reserve funds, but he said it was important “to make decisions now that will help prevent (the city) from getting back to here.”
At Wednesday’s meeting Craighead produced a list of reductions in personnel which he repeated on Thursday he was against. They include a custodian and a clerk at the JFFC, an attendant at the Don Fox Community Park, a finance manager, an accounting clerk and a billing clerk from the Finance Department, a secretary from Public Works, an archives clerk, a certified building inspector, a secretary from the cemetery, a chief surveyor and a planner from engineering. Councilors have said that they don’t want to lay off city employees but have been inconsistent in their position according to city officials. One councilor proposed a list of 20 positions to be cut but noted that all of them, with the exception of three, were on Craighead’s and Huddleston’s lists. As for the suggestion to lay off Siens as city liaison, Craighead said, “If she’s not here, we’ve lost that connection to so many people who can help our (city).”
He and Siens recently returned from the annual International Council of Shopping Centers meeting held in Las Vegas a gathering that brings together people in positions of deciding to put new stores. Craighead said many of them came up and asked where Siens was while she was attending to business elsewhere at the meeting. Craighead said it is important to continue to tell Lebanon’s story so that new investment will come here in the future and that was part of Siens job. Since Siens joined the city in 1994, she has been involved in some facet in developments such as Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walmart Supercenter, Publix, Dollar General Market and many industries. She has written grant applications for various projects in the city, helped with the city’s Easter Egg Hunt, Christmas and Halloween celebrations, July 4 festivities and more. She has also spearheaded the special censuses the city has had in recent years. Since 1994, the population of Lebanon has increased 63 percent from around 15,000 to more than 24,000 today. And in that time, sales tax revenues have increased more than 215 percent, from $5.3 million in 1993-’94 to $17.2 million in ’07-’08, according to figures from the Tennessee Department of Revenue. To be sure, the City of Mt. Juliet’s sales tax revenue has also increased in those years, along with the population which now exceeds that of Lebanon, but even with the addition of the Providence MarketPlace and national retailers and restaurants, Mt. Juliet’s sales taxes for ’07-’08 were $9 million up from $766,408 in ’93-’94. Craighead said he would like to meet with council in budget work sessions next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday if he can get everyone together to see “if we can agree on one thing a night and move forward.” He added, “I wasn’t elected mayor to regress. I was elected to be progressive. I don’t want the city to continue to be in a constant battle. I am asking one more time, let’s come to the table together and get this resolved. We’ve got to. It’s what we were elected to do.” Editor Jennifer Horton may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.