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City budget passes next-to-last hurdle

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One more vote to go, and the City of Lebanon will have adopted its $25 million budget for the new fiscal year that will begin next month.

By a 5-0 vote, the Lebanon City Council approved the second reading of the budget at a special called meeting following a work session held for councilors to ask additional questions about the budget's provisions.

The third, final reading is scheduled for the council's first regular meeting in June, on Tuesday, Mayor Philip Craighead said. Under state law, city budgets must be passed on three readings before the city council in order to take effect, rather than the customary two readings required for other ordinances.

Only five votes were cast because Ward 1 Councilor Lanny Jewell was absent due to the serious illness of his father, former Lebanon Mayor Bobby Jewell, who passed away Saturday evening.

Sixth work session held
The work session and special meeting Thursday evening were called because, when Ward 6 Councilor Kathy Warmath was chairing the May 19 meeting as mayor pro tem in Craighead's absence, the councilors voted to defer the budget's second reading until they could ask City Finance Commissioner Robert Springer a few more questions about the budget.

At that time, Ward 3 Councilor Rob Cesternino objected that the council had already held five work sessions about the budget, so he and Ward 2 Councilor Tick Bryan both voted against deferring the second reading.

But Warmath and Jewell both said they had more questions to ask - and as it turned out, so did Ward 2 Councilor Fred Burton and Ward 4 Councilor Bernie Ash, who both asked and received answers to questions during Thursday's work session.

The multi-thousand-dollar question, of course, was funding for the new Fire Station No. 4 in southwest Lebanon, planned for city property behind Wendy's on Highway 109 near I-40.

"My question is, how are we going to afford the operating costs for the firehouse?" Warmath asked.

Springer responded that no money has been included for equipping and staffing the new fire station in the 2015-16 budget because it will take at least a year to build it, and first the council must take two more major steps to authorize construction. He called the money budgeted for the new station a "placeholder" in case the council goes ahead and takes those steps.

Fire hall 'not a done deal'

"What is in the budget this year for the fire hall is simply loan proceeds coming in, and loan proceeds going out," Springer described. "What has not been acted on is how we will service that debt."

In other words, "it doesn't mean that because it's in the budget, that it's a done deal," Springer reassured the councilors. "The fire hall can't move forward until you do two things - accept bids and vote on how you're going to pay for it."

Springer also recommended borrowing from the city's natural gas fund to finance construction of the fire station because the gas fund could get a higher return from the city than from other interest-generating sources, while the general fund could borrow the money at a lower rate from the gas fund than from other sources.

"It's a win-win for the gas fund and for the general fund," he told the council.

Councilor Burton, meanwhile, returned to the question of staffing the fire station, inquiring, "None of the operating expenses are in the budget, as a placeholder?"

No, Springer replied: "Budget-wise, it wouldn't impact this budget, because it would take a year to get it built, anyway."

'Plans take a while'
"We'll finish up getting the plans, we'll get a bid out, and then we'll come back to council asking you to support the fire hall," Craighead added. "It takes architects a while."

Burton responded that he thought the city council had seen the final plans at an earlier meeting - referring to March 17, when the council voted 5-0 to allow Public Works Commissioner Jeff Baines to advertise for bids for the proposed station.

"I was under the impression the plans were ready, when they were here with all those pictures," the Ward 2 councilor said.

"No, they hadn't (finished them)," the mayor answered, quipping that he could draw the plans in one night himself, but that instead, "it's in the process."

"Before they can even scratch ground, you're looking at about six months," Fire Chief Chris Dowell described the timetable to Burton.

Mayor 'confident' funds will be found
As for being able to pay for staffing and equipping the station once it's built, Craighead predicted and virtually promised the city's future budgets will be able to cover those costs.

"As revenues continue to increase, and we continue to look at possibilities of how to fund the firemen, the combination of all those things will help us arrive at a solution," the mayor said.

"I'm very confident that when we get ready to hire the firemen, the funds will be there."

Other questions that councilors had during the work session included details of the pay raises in the new budget and when the city would be able to start building other major infrastructure projects it is planning.

For the purpose of keeping good employees working for the city and remaining competitive with other cities, the new budget contains three types of raises - an across-the-board 1.5 percent pay increase; a minimum starting wage of $11 per hour for new full-time employees; and a $200 hike in the year-end annual bonus for all city workers, from $300 to $500.

A study by Human Resources Director Sylvia Reichle shows that salaries for Lebanon employees excluding department heads average 22 percent lower than those for 10 other nearby cities - and that the city's compensation for some department heads also is seriously lagging.

In Wilson County, the City of Mt. Juliet pays department heads about $10,118 more per year than Lebanon pays, and pays its other employees about $9,025 more than Lebanon does, Reichle's study indicates.

38 individual raises
The proposed increases for department heads drew a question at Thursday's work session from Councilor Ash. Springer responded that in addition to the 1.5 percent across the board, 38 specific employees will get individual raises.

"Some are department heads, some are not," he told Ash. "Some may have completed a certification program, and some may have been dramatically underpaid. This addresses that."

"Some of the department heads were way, way under," Craighead agreed, and Councilor Cesternino emphasized, "Everybody, as a city, was 22 percent under."

Warmath said she still had some questions about the salary survey, but she did not voice them. Craighead said he believes "the adjustments we made were very, very justified," and that they amounted to $134,000 of the entire $25 million budget, including $62,000 from the general fund and $72,000 from other city funds.

"I'm okay with it," Ash responded. "I just wanted to read it for myself." All councilors were given a printout listing the specific raises.

Warmath and Craighead also both clarified that the slight, $120 per-month increase for city council members, from the current $630 to a proposed $750, will not affect any current council members yet. Under state law, council raises can't take effect for any councilor until another election has been held for his or her seat.

Because council terms are staggered, council pay will vary after the next election until all six seats have come up for election again, Warmath noted.

Connector road blocked
The Ward 6 councilor also asked about the progress of the connector road the city is planning to build between Beckwith Road and Highway 109 south of I-40. She said she thought the council approved issuing $5 million in bonds for the project last year.

"The only thing we've approved is the engineering and design," Craighead responded.

But there's no point in issuing construction bonds until a right-of-way is cleared through the proposed Bel-Air subdivision on the southeast corner of Beckwith Road and I-40, the mayor added -and Bel-Air is tied up in a jurisdictional dispute between the City of Mt. Juliet and the rural Wilson County Water and Wastewater Treatment Association (WCWWTA) over sewer service.

The state attorney general issued an opinion in Mt. Juliet's favor a year ago in February, but that still didn't give the Bel-Air developers the confidence to go ahead with their project, Craighead explained. As a result, both he and Cesternino said the Beckwith connector project faces a "logjam," and Warmath herself called it "landlocked."

As for issuing bonds to build the connector road, Craighead said that until the project becomes possible, "It doesn't make sense to get that money and just sit on it and pay interest."

"That area, it's prime, it's a jewel," Warmath commented, "but it can't be a jewel without our help."

"That's why we need to get going on the fire hall," Craighead responded.

Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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