Staff get verbal slap on the wrist

City council took city staff to task this week for removing money from the budget that council had previously set aside for a new downtown fire hall.

During 2016 budget planning sessions this week at City Hall, Coun. Michele Babchuk noticed that only $50,000 of the $500,000 council had allocated had been carried forward to next year’s capital plan.

“I’m just confused…why it was unilaterally only $50,000 brought forward?” Babchuk asked.

Coun. Larry Samson said it was not city staff’s place to move money around without first consulting council.

“I believe when council, through a majority vote, passes a motion, staff do not have the right to change or alter that motion unless it has been brought back to council for our approval,” Samson said. “Staff are not allowed to ignore the motion and move the money where they feel fit. To me the Community Charter is clear where it states only council can exercise the powers, duties and functions of the municipality.”

City Manager Deborah Sargent said staff’s rationale for only allocating $50,000 in 2016 was because, prior to budget planning, staff, in consultation with the city’s fire chief, agreed the city would not move forward with replacing the downtown fire hall until a Fire Services Plan is completed, likely in early 2016.

“The feeling was although there had been a clear council direction at the beginning of 2015 to have the $500,000 in the capital plan, there wasn’t a clear indication that would be needed in the 2016 capital plan,” Sargent said. “The finance department has worked closely with our fire chief to establish a business plan for the development of a new fire hall and what they found was so many unanswered questions or roadblocks.”

Babchuk said she could appreciate the rationale but added that conversation was never brought back to council.

“It was just put here unilaterally so I was a bit taken aback when I saw that only $50,000 was brought forward,” she said.

Samson agreed, saying that council has made it a priority to improve its infrastructure and to not allocate all the funding is doing the city a disservice.

“When I see the fire department only be being brought forward $50,000 and then wiped clean for the next 10 years with no money in the budget, it seems to be an oversight,” Samson said. “It’s no secret the No.1 station needs replacement.”

Samson wanted the $450,000 taken out by staff to be restored so the city can properly analyze property he said the city purchased at the Dogwood tower for a possible new fire hall site.

Both Coun. Charlie Cornfield and Babchuk were concerned, though, that putting the full $450,000 back into 2016 may be more than needed.

In the end, council chose to split the funds and put $225,000 back into 2016 – in addition to the $50,000 staff had already allocated – and the remaining $225,000 into the 2017 budget.