By Sarrah Peters
On Tuesday, September 10, the Gadsden City Council introduced its proposed 2020 city budget.
The proposed budget includes an increase for the city’s fire and police department’s pay. The city is currently 16 staff members down in the police department, and the city’s finance director Lisa Rosser said that she hopes the higher pay will help with the staff shortage crisis.
“We increased the starting pay for police officers from $15.09 to $17.06 an hour,” said Rosser. “That puts us higher in entry pay than anyone around us.”
The budget also includes pay raises for current police department employees. Rosser noted that overfunding of the DART and trolley transportation funding in previous years allowed the city to reassign the funds typically allotted to those programs to the police department, offsetting the additional costs.
The fire department will receive a similar raise. Fire department employees making $15.41 per hour or below will receive a five percent raise. This raise will cost about $220,000.
City employees will also receive a raise. City employees making less than $15.03 per hour will receive a 2.5 percent raise. City employees making more than $15.03 an hour will receive a 1.25 percent raise. This raise will cost about $210,000.
In addition to cost increases from raises, the city’s personnel costs rose by over $975,000, although Rosser said that about $322,000 in retiree credits helped with the increased expense. A $300,000 increase for use of the Etowah County Jail and a nearly $150,000 increase in electricity costs also increased the city’s operating costs.
However, it was a $200,000 cut to the Gadsden City School System that caused many school board officials and citizens to speak against the proposed budget. Last year, the Gadsden City Council gave the school system $1.1 million dollars, with $800,000 going to the board and $300,000 going towards reading and math programs. This year the board will receive $900,000, with no additional money for specific programming, creating a $200,000 loss for the school board.
School Board member Mark Dayton addressed the council about the board’s funding difficulties, stating that a statewide four percent raise for teachers affected state funding.
“We’ve already been hit by the state government,” said Dayton. “What we are asking now is not to take a $200,000 hit from our city government.”
Dayton said that the perception that a cut to education would cause businesses to not decide to come to this area.
“I have heard everyone on this council say that you want to bring business here, you want to bring people back to this city,” said Dayton. “You want to bring business here, you’ve got to have an educated workforce.”
School board members Allen Millican and Z. Andre’ Huff also addressed the city council.
Millican noted that as a new school board with a new superintendent, the funding loss would make the first year serving even more difficult and urged the city to support the new staff. Huff noted that while the raise for first responders was a great thing, that a cut to education may cause future problems for the police department.
“If you remove money from education, you’re going to be looking for more policemen,” said Huff. “You’re going to need to hire more because crime is going up.”
Citizens also expressed anger and disappointment in both the city and school board’s budgeting, with some claiming that the school board should be able to handle a $200,000 loss to the $54 million dollar budget if there is no misappropriation of funds and calling for an audit.
Others expressed that the city council is making it clear that education is not a priority to them if they make this cut.
School board officials and city council members assured the public that the school board is audited on a yearly basis, and that there are no signs of misuse of funds.
A motion was made to suspend the council rules and vote on the budget, but it did not pass. Councilman Kent Back, one of the council members who voted against the motion, said that he did not want the council to look as if they were unfairly pushing the budget through.
At the end of the two-hour meeting, council members each addressed the issue in their closing remarks.
Councilman Thomas Worthy said that despite supporting the first responders raises that he would vote against the budget as long as there was an education cut.
Councilman Deverick Williams said that he felt as if people were disregarding the facts and stated that a budget is a guideline and that if an emergency arises with the school system that the council can always step in to help. He also advised the public to become more financially literate.
“I think the panic is a little bit misguided,” said Williams.
Councilman Kent Back said that he would do what was right, and that sometimes that involves making hard decisions. While he is married to a teacher and supports education, Kent said that he believes this is the right decision for the city.
Councilman Jason Wilson said that he was disappointed by the public’s reaction towards the council.
“Saying we do not support the kids, that is not the truth,” said Wilson, before listing what school programs he has supported with his district’s discretionary funds.
Reed and Cannon stated their confidence in the superintendent and school board to find and eliminate redundancies in the school board budget, to make the financial cut have less of an impact.
The budget is scheduled to be voted on at next week’s Gadsden City Council meeting on Tuesday, September 17 at 11 a.m.