Council rejects draft budget

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By David Giuliani

For days, City Manager Sharon Caballero and others at City Hall pored over every line item of the city’s proposed budget, worked the numbers and projected revenue for the next year.

They even put up a “War Room” sign on the door outside the office that became budget central.

On Friday night, the City Council unanimously rejected the budget. So it’s back to the drawing boards for city officials and the Albuquerque-based accounting firm the city hired to help with the effort.

After Mark Santiago of Atkinson Co. presented the revenue side of the budget at Friday’s council meeting, Councilman Morris Madrid told him there was no need to discuss the expense side of the budget.

He noted that the amount of the revenues had changed from the initial draft of the budget, which Caballero had police officers deliver to council members’ homes the night before.

That draft indicated revenue for the city’s general fund — which pays for everything from police and firefighters to public works and parks — would be a little more than $10 million this fiscal year. By the time, the council met Friday night, that number had increased to $11.6 million.

Madrid, a former city finance director and city manager, said that because of the change in revenue, the city would have to adjust its cash balances and expenditures. As it was, he warned that the state Department of Finance and Administration would reject the city’s budget as is.

“We have a new sum, but not new parts,” he said. “If I were city manager, I wouldn’t submit it, and if I were DFA, I wouldn’t accept it.”

Madrid immediately proposed that the council reject the budget and that city staffers come back with a revised budget for the council’s regular meeting Wednesday. Councilman Cruz Royal quickly backed his colleague’s suggestion.

Santiago admitted the problem.

“I see that you’re absolutely correct. We will take care of it. I know what we need to do. We’re not far away,” said Santiago, whose firm was hired to prepare the final proposed budget after the city dismissed Finance Director Ann Marie Gallegos last month.

Councilwoman Diane Moore expressed her unhappiness.

“It sounds like you brought a budget that wasn’t balanced. Basically, we wasted our time,” she said.

Santiago apologized.

Later in the meeting, Moore said, “I apologize for stating that it was a waste of time. It’s kind of disappointing.”

All three council members voted to reject the budget. Councilman Andrew Feldman was absent.

Santiago and Caballero have been meeting with department heads to determine their needs. Santiago said he got “good energy” from the directors.

“They felt that they belonged to the process. Before, they didn’t feel as if they were a part of the budget team,” he said.

Madrid wondered aloud how long that Santiago was suggesting that had been a problem.

“I sat in that chair and that chair,” Madrid said, referring to where the city manager and finance director sit. “I thought we did a good job.”

Santiago said he was reflecting the comments from the staff. “That was the feeling I got,” he said.

Mayor Tony Marquez said the process for formulating the budget was the most transparent he had seen in his 11 years with the city.

“In the past, it used to be done at the 11th hour. It’s rewarding to see that everyone has input,” he said.

The city has already turned in a preliminary budget to the state. It must submit its final proposed budget by Thursday, one day after the council will consider the draft budget again.

The fiscal year started July 1.

Highlights of the budget

Municipal Judge Eddie Trujillo requested that the city once again budget a municipal court service coordinator position. The proposed budget grants that request. The additional salary would cost the city $26,560; the position was last filled in 2006. Trujillo recently told the council that the added position would help the court collect fines, which now stand at $350,000 at least 180 days overdue.

The city hopes that the new employee will more than make up the cost of salary by increasing fine collections, which have dropped since the position has been vacant.

• • •

The executive department, which includes the mayor, city manager and City Council, will see an increase of 21 percent in its budget. That’s despite the drop in the council salaries line item from $135,000 to 68,000, a rejected that the council mandated with the passage of an ordinance last year.

The increase comes from three additional positions: grant writer ($41,500), special projects coordinator ($44,000) and public information officer ($38,000). The special projects coordinator position will be filled by Carlos Ortiz, who is currently the projects coordinator in the public works department, a position he took after he was dismissed as public works director last month.

• • •

City Manager Sharon Caballero will see a big increase in pay over her predecessor. She will be making $95,000 annually, up from former City Manager John Avila, who pulled in $75,000. Caballero, who took the position in June, is a former Highlands University president and director of the Las Vegas-San Miguel Economic Development Corporation.

• • •

The controversial administrative fee for the natural gas utility – which amounts to 10 percent of budgeted revenue, making customers’ bills higher — will stay the same under the proposed budget. The fee is projected to transfer $800,000 from the natural gas fund to the city’s general fund, which pays for everything from police to parks. Some question why natural gas users must pay a bigger share of government operations than those using propane, electricity or wood to heat their homes. Last year, city officials generally agreed to start decreasing the fee by a percentage point every year until it reached 6 percent. Last year, the fee dropped from 11 percent to 10 percent. Councilman Morris Madrid questioned why that plan wasn’t being followed in the proposed budget; he requested the city look into the matter.

• • •

The Police Department, which is the biggest department in the general fund, would see an increase of 10 percent under the proposed budget.

The draft contains no pay increases for any classification of employees. City Manager Sharon Caballero said the city is starting negotiations with the police officers union and that it wouldn’t be wise to include a number in its budget beforehand because that would weaken the city’s bargaining position.

The department’s oil and gas budget is nearly doubling to $200,000. Caballero said she wants departments to budget as if the current $4-a-gallon gasoline prices would increase by a lot over the next year.

• • •

Some departments would see decreases in the proposed budget — city clerk (-1 percent), city attorney (-8 percent), community development (-18 percent), public works (-.2 percent) and general services (-11 percent).

Other departments would gain from the budget — Municipal Court (10 percent), executive (22 percent), human resources (4 percent), finance (11 percent), police (10 percent), animal control (11 percent), fire (9 percent), parks (7 percent), library (20 percent) and museum (17 percent).

• • •

The Las Vegas-San Miguel Economic Development Corporation will see a big increase from the city — from $40,000 last year to nearly double that amount this year. City Manager Sharon Caballero herself wrote the request for EDC when she was still the group’s director.

Other groups, including Love Your Neighbor and Samaritan House, didn’t get any money from the city under the proposed budget, despite their requests. Caballero said they didn’t get funding because the city was concerned that doing so would violate the state constitution’s anti-donation clause, which bars public money from going toward private purposes.

— David Giuliani,

Las Vegas Optic