WILLIAMSON – At Thursday’s meeting of the Williamson City Council, Mayor Robert Carlton’s request for council to consider a reduction in police and fire personnel to offset Williamson’s deficit budget was met with opposition from some council members.
At the meeting, Williamson Mayor Robert Carlton requested that the council entertain a motion to go into executive session to discuss personnel matters. The request was met with silence from council members. With no motion made Carlton stated, “The issue with personnel being on the agenda is the fact that we are running a deficit budget and we are going to have to reduce expenses in the city. We have done everything that is theoretically possible as far as trying to generate new revenues. We have had a freeze on discretionary spending. In addition, we have had the opportunity to consider the budget reports as they come in each month from the clerk. We have a major deficiency for this year and we need to have some personnel reductions. Personnel also include the contract we have with Veolia who supplies the garbage collection, street department and floodwall maintenance. I am asking council between now and next council meeting decide on what personnel reductions they are inclined to. I am thinking just like some of the other cities such as Huntington and others that have had to lay off police and firemen, that is an inevitable matter at this point. I want to draw that to your attention and request that you deal with that at the next meeting.”
Councilwoman Judy Hamrick responded stating, “One of the problems that I am having in reducing personnel and all these things, I haven’t seen any information that provides us with specific money amounts. I understand the deficit but I don’t any information regarding how a particular cut will impact that and if I don’t have that showing, it is hard to make a decision.”
Carlton noted that the council receives a monthly report from the Williamson City Clerk’s Office. “In addition, I had West Virginia University review the finances and they sent a report and I sent that to you. That clearly indicates from some Master level students and their instructor that cuts must be made,” Carlton said. “We have been following this budget crisis for a long time and giving monthly reports. We also have an inordinately high amount of unpaid month to month debt. We need to not only balance this budget but go back and catch up other arrearages that have occurred. The time for action has arrived. My recommendation is that we reduce the police department by two employees and we reduce the fire department by two employees, which would routinely fall under civil service as the most recently hired. In addition, come into negotiations with Veolia about reducing the contract we have with Veolia for the revision of services. We have a contract with them that doesn’t expire until March of next year. The contract has provisions that we can buy out of the contract early but the problem with doing either of those is that there is currently from previous administrations a $300,000 to $400,000 debt that is owed. The contract that we have with Veolia states that the arrearage that is owed to them will be paid by March of next year and I don’t see that being able to be done so I am in negotiations with them to restructure that debt. At this point, there are serious financial problems. They aren’t totally new problems. The indebtedness of the city and different departments, the amount that was financed in 2013 was $500,000 and we are all aware of the $1,000,000 deficit that I spent most of last year trying to resolve with Veolia. That has been resolved through the PSC rate increases and the negotiations we had with Mountain Water District.”
Following the Mayor’s recommendation, some members of the council expressed opinions stating that it was not in the best interest of the city to make reductions in police and fire personnel. Councilman York Smith stated, “That is the worst thing that could happen. I say this; times are hard and a lot of people can’t pay their bills. The day we start cutting our fire and police department we are asking for trouble. We have to come up with some way to keep them working….”
Near the end of the meeting Sherri Hairston- Brown expressed a similar opinion stating, “Sometimes, we as council members need to say thank you and we don’t. We take for granted a lot of things. We (council members) work hard to keep this city running and it is not an easy job. This is a thankless job too. I do it because I love this city… I love my police officers and I love my fireman and I want to say thank you. I love my garbage and water people. I don’t want to get rid of anybody.”
At the meeting, Williamson Fire Chief Joey Carey also explained that cutting Williamson Fire Department personnel would have a negative impact on local home owners. “Another thing, I just let you guys know a couple of council meetings ago that we are now an ISO Class II fire department which is remarkable. If we lose any more manpower at that fire department that ISO rating is not going to stay that low. If our rating goes up again, home owners insurance will go up. We actually just decreased the rating so people have not yet got to experience the decrease in their homeowners insurance yet. It is effective April 1. Again, I encourage everybody that April 1; you should get in contact with your insurance agent and let them know we are a Class II fire department now. We went from a three to a two. There could be some significant rate changes,” Carey said.
Carlton reminded council members that March is the month designated to approving a budget for the next year. “I have sent council information on that as to the time frames. We need to have a special meeting for budget issues. I just have to tell you, unless something major changes, you are looking at a 20 to 25 percent reduction in your budget for next year.”
Courtney Harrison is a news reporter for the Williamson Daily News. She can be contacted at [email protected] or at 304-235-4242 ext. 2279.