Baker city council: 'We're broke'

Baker city council: 'We're broke'
Photo provided by staff

POSTED: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 4:00am

UPDATED: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 11:29am

The financial problems in Baker are worse than city leaders thought. And the budget they approved Tuesday night does nothing to solve them.

The council unanimously approved a spending plan for the 2013-14 fiscal year, but it immediately scheduled two more meetings to draft amendments.

The city council learned just Monday that almost half of its cash reserves are gone, which it blamed on conservative spending estimates made by the previous council.

The council had previously worked under the assumption that Baker had a surplus of $4.3 million. Instead, the city finance department claimed the actual surplus is $2.3 million. And the budget approved Tuesday, if left unaltered, will run a deficit of $1.9 million.

"The city will have less than half a million left in surplus," city treasurer Monese Scott confirmed for them Tuesday night. "That is a dangerous position for us to be in."

Baker's charter requires the council to approve a budget by June 11, so it felt compelled to pass this plan. But the council immediately set two meetings for next week to cut costs. Members held several meetings with the heads of the police, fire, and public works departments to trim their individual budgets.

"And they very graciously, each one of them took a percentage and cut it out of the, what they had originally asked for, to try to bring it into some order," said councilman Pete Heine. "But we're broke."

The council also said the city finance department had not paid enough attention to detail, making errors that would have cost even more money.

"Accuracy is king," councilwoman Joyce Burges told them. "And incorrect numbers, typos; we've been presented with things like that. You know, it's just been a madhouse to go through this budget, with a new council."

"We know, this time, it's right," countered Darnell Waits, who works in the mayor's office. "I'm telling you it's right. Because I saw the same thing, okay? I'm just as smart as you guys, I saw it. So I wanted it right."

Burges also asked if it was appropriate for the finance department to make changes to the budget after the last time the council had met, on Monday. Waits claimed he spoke with a couple of the council members earlier Tuesday, to alert them, but had been unable to reach Burges.

A piece of the police department's budget also caused confusion. Chief Mike Knaps said adjustments he made were removed at the last minute by someone in the mayor's office. The adjustments involved allowing officers to return to their proper salary levels after years of inadvertant freezes.

"These guys have said they are not, at this point, not interested in any back pay whatsoever," Knaps insisted. "They would just be appreciative to be caught up where they belong."

A couple of people talked about why they thought the city was running out of cash, including former mayor Leroy Davis. But councilman Robert Young told them they should have paid closer attention to the actions of the previous council, "and just going through all these budget meetings and hearing what the former council [did], not being good stewards of it. [If not for them,] we wouldn't be in this situation that we are right now."

Aside from the extra cuts, residents will likely be asked to pay more for sewer, trash, utilities, and other services.

One woman in the audience asked the council what the budget would cost her. Burges provided the only response: "time on your knees in prayer."

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