By CONNIE ESHThe Wilson Post
A proposed change in the way Lebanon budgets its funds has drawn both support and questions.
Ward 3 Councilor William Farmer has proposed a resolution that would require all future city budgets to be line item budgets instead of omnibus budgets as they are now prepared.
An omnibus budget allows department heads to transfer funds from one budget item to another and then notify Lebanon City Council which in effect is asked to approve spending after the fact instead of before.
“I believe this needs to change. Otherwise it supports reckless spending by managers,” Farmer said.
A line item budget requires department heads to get prior approval from council before spending any money for a different purpose than the budget specified, Farmer pointed out.
Ward 6 Councilor Kathy Warmath said she wishes the city had gone to line item budgeting years ago.
“Our system doesn’t allow us (City Council) to control what money is spent for,” she said. “I think sometimes people forget this is not our money, it’s taxpayer money. We have to be accountable.”
Ward 1 Councilor Alex Buhler agrees that change is needed.
“This way department heads couldn’t shift line items, move money without council knowing,” he said. “That’s happening all the time. Every month they move $8, $10, $12,000 around because they didn’t budget well enough.”
Farmer requested that the resolution, which would only require one reading be placed on the agenda for the Feb. 3 council meeting.
But Finance Commissioner Russell Lee asked that the resolution be held until after the Feb. 12 Finance Committee meeting so that it could be discussed then, saying since he has to be out of town on Feb. 3, he would not be available to comment then.
And Farmer responded, “As far as a delay, since this is simply a policy statement of intent, and the details will be in the future Ordinance, I believe a delay could cause problems getting this procedure in place for the 2009-2010 Budget. But I will be guided by the wishes of the majority on the council.”
Ward 5 Councilor Haywood Barry, who worked under Wilson County’s line item budget, said he would like to see potential issues discussed.
“It’s a good idea to look at line item budgeting,” Barry said. He also said he would like to see the change eased in if it’s made.
“I would like to see it go in part at a time and see how it works,” he said, pointing out that the situations in county and city government are not the same.
“Control is important, but there needs to be some flexibility, keeping in mind budgets are only targets,” he said.
Lee also suggested that certain categories of the budget be excluded from the need for further council approval, “in recognition that budgets are estimates.”
“I realize that an annual budget is an estimate, however , it is suppose to also be a cost control procedure,” Farmer responded.
Lee also said, “It is extremely critical that the department heads are allowed to and are held responsible for establishing and controlling the budget at the line item level within the total funding available to them.”
Lee said this accountability was needed since department heads are responsible for performing their duties.
“Responsibility with no authority is not possible,” he said.
“This could take control away from department heads,” Mayor Philip Craighead said. “But I don’t know exactly what he (Farmer) has in mind, so it’s hard to give an opinion.”
Both Craighead and Barry also expressed concern about how emergencies would be handled.
“This could slow the city’s response in an emergency,” Craighead said. “I would hate to see government slowed down.”
Barry pointed out that the county deals with emergencies through its finance department, but the city would need a plan for those situations.
“If a truck breaks down, or the computers crash, we don’t need to wait two weeks to respond,” he said.
But Buhler said he was concerned with how “so called” emergencies are being handled now.
“Debit cards were supposed to be for emergencies,” he said. “But daily costs are being charged to them. This system wouldn’t affect emergencies, but it would require better planning by department heads.”
Lee also pointed out that this type of budgeting would require hiring another full time accounting clerk to keep up with the increased work and record keeping.
Farmer disagreed. “What I gather from your (Russell Lee’s) e-mail we do not presently have any person in accounting that monitors and helps to control costs under the present system? Therefore you claim to need to add a person at added cost.”
Farmer then added “Based upon the present size of your Department and the City government I do not understand this needed increase. I believe you need to relook at how people are working and how they are being used. As I have asked before all city employees need to work a full 8 hours per day -- I fear that has not been happening.”
But Billy Weeks, commissioner of Public Safety, agrees with Lee. “But it’s even more critical if we’re going to keep up with it to obtain some software used in this decade,” he said.
And Barry pointed out that if the process came in over a period of two or three years that would allow time to add the new software. “We would need all new software,” he noted.
Craighead expressed similar concerns. “The important part is the total picture. This could be more expensive because it would call for extra personnel to control spending.”
He added he really wished when officials had ideas for change, “They would come in and we could work on them together.”
Staff Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.