City budget suggestions cause conflict on Shawnee council
New City Council Member Eric Jenkins has proposed some changes to the city's department structure and budget as the city wraps up its 2016 budget session, which caused some backlash from other members of the council.
The proposals were outlined at a recent council committee meeting in which the city concluded a series of presentations from each of the city's departments. Jenkins, who was elected in April, had prepared a list of five suggestions for city staff to look at regarding the budget. His suggestions were met claims of "micromanaging" the city by Council Members Jeff Vaught and Mickey Sandifer, sparking a debate as to what the council's role is in the city.
"I've just made some suggestions that I think would improve the city," Jenkins said. "My job is to represent my constituents and hopefully, if it's a good idea, we can affect some positive change."
Vaught and Sandifer said that under the city's city manager system, the council should leave department structure and management to the city manager. Vaught said the city is "by far" the most efficient city in Johnson County and pointed out that the city has won awards for its budget under City Manager Carol Gonzales' leadership.
"That's why we have a city manager," Vaught said. "When we start reaching into different departments and structure I think we are overstepping."
Jenkins disagreed, saying that the council's role is to evaluate the city staff's recommendations and offer them suggestions and feedback, whether they be positive or negative.
Mayor Michelle Distler said she would agree with Jenkins in that the council should be able to give the city ideas and suggestions for improvement.
"I think anyone can always offer any suggestion," Distler said. "It all goes back to us thinking together, which is good for the city."
Jenkins outlined five ideas for the city. First, he proposed that the city eliminate the Developmental Services Department by combining it with the Public Works Department. He said the timing is excellent for this change because Ron Freyermuth retired months ago and the city could move the director of the Development Services Department into the vacant role, cover both departments and save the cit the expense of another department head salary.
Freyermuth, who worked for the city for 30 years, retired in March. City Communications Manager Dan Ferguson said the city has been working since then to re-evaluate the position. Ferguson said Gonzales took a step back to look at the job description and see what potential ways the city could improve the effectiveness of the position and improve the structure of city staff. Through the process, the city spoke with employees in the public works department and consulted with other cities and organizations, Ferguson said.
After months of having one of the key roles in the city vacant, the city will open the position to applicants by the end of July. Ferguson said the process has been challenging for the city because they lost someone with incredible knowledge of the city.
"You don't just replace those positions overnight," Ferguson said.
Jenkins' suggestion to reorganize the two departments was shut down at the recent council committee meeting as the council voted 4-3 in favor of directing staff to pursue its recommended budget plan for 2016. Gonzales said recently that the staff will continue on with the budget as directed by the council, but Jenkins said he plans on bringing up his suggestions again. Jenkins, Dan Pflumm and Mike Kemmling voted against directing staff to continue with its current budget plan and they all expressed interest in exploring Jenkins' suggestions.
Jenkins's other ideas included installing a moratorium on projected staff hiring and a return to pre-recession staffing levels because he said he thinks the country's emersion from the recession isn't complete and the city should be more conservative in returning to previous staffing levels. He also suggested an increase in the contribution from the city's general fund to the road and street maintenance programs and also suggested that the city budget a higher amount for storm water management. Through these suggestions, he asked that the city present a revised budget to include any potential measures that could be implemented in these areas.
Gonzales would not comment on the issues brought up at the council committee meeting but Sandifer defended the city's work on the current budget, arguing that as council members, they do not fully understand the ramifications of toying that much with the budget.
"What are we going to damage over here when we pull it from over here," Sandifer said in reference to moving funds from one fund to another.
Jenkins defended his ideas, saying that he is not micromanaging, but rather bringing new ideas to the table.
"I'm not dissatisfied with our staff, I just think that sometimes it helps to have someone come in from the outside with some ideas or suggestions," Jenkins said.
Lastly, Jenkins suggested that the city re-evaluates how it presents its budget each year so it is more understandable to the public. This idea is already being explored by Distler and Gonzales, and Distler said she would continue that conversation as a way to make the city's government more user-friendly to the citizens of Shawnee.
The City Council will set the budget limit at the next City Council meeting and will schedule a public hearing on the budget on July 27 when it will consider adopting the 2015 revised and 2016 budgets.
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