Imker PTC budget bomb stuns staff

Peachtree City Councilman Eric Imker gives his spreadsheet presentation of the new budget proposal at the Aug. 21 council meeting. Photo/John Thompson.
No tax hike, but now what? Mayor Fleisch charges she was blindsided; Imker says city staff had been notified, offers detailed defense
By JOHN THOMPSON
jthompson@TheCitizen.com
 
Nerves are frayed at Peachtree City Hall, as the city’s staff sharpens their pencils to create a new budget, while Mayor Vanessa Fleisch claims she was totally left out of the loop in the wake of the City Council’s late Thursday night 3-to-2 vote to leave the millage rate the same.
 
Nearly four days after the vote, the city’s staff is trying to figure out the exact amount the city’s budget will be for fiscal year 2015. Nobody at City Hall, from the city’s finance director to the mayor, knows how much the city’s expenditures will be after a somewhat chaotic and confusing number of motions were needed Thursday night to pass the budget.
 
“That’s why I wanted to table the budget until the next meeting. Staff is still trying to regroup,” Fleisch said.
 
The millage rate passed with Imker, Kim Learnard and Mike King supporting leaving it unchanged at 6.756 mills and the bond rate unchanged at .0332 mills.
 
The budget approval came after a lengthy presentation by Imker, who urged the council to live within its means and beseeched them to turn down the proposed one mill increase recommended by staff.
 
The extra tax money would have generated just over $1.7 million, which the city would have used to give a 3 percent across-the-board pay hike to city employees, along with bringing landscaping in-house and paving more of the city’s streets.
 
The council also voted to increase the golf cart registration fee from $12 every five years to $15 for five years. The increase is expected to net $35,000 in five years, and Imker also wants to see the fee prorated for residents who purchase golf carts late in the year.
 
“It would have been nice if Councilman [Terry] Ernst and I had known about this,” the mayor said.
 
Fleisch said during the lengthy budget process, the direction of the council was clearly to provide more services for the city’s residents.
 
“No one ever objected to this direction,” she added.
 
After the axe dropped on the proposed $32 million budget, the council passed several of Imker’s recommendations including delaying purchasing five new police vehicles, implementing an inverted 2 percent salary raise and instructing City Manager Jim Pennington to cut $100,000 from the city’s budget, including chopping travel costs and cutting subscriptions to various periodicals.
 
Another item that will find its way into the new budget is an alternative means for mowing and landscaping. The city originally proposed hiring 22 workers to bring the work back in house, but Imker urged a different way.
 
He said the city needs to a award a new right of way mowing contract to include a longer season and more frequency. He also said the city should just hire 12 employees, which includes six that were already hired in the previous year. By using this approach, he estimates the city could save $70,000 in equipment costs.
 
The biggest item Imker slashed was a proposed $720,000 increase in road maintenance and said the current budgeted amount of $770,000 should be focused on neighborhood streets since previous year’s funds went to big-ticket projects such as Dividend Drive and Crosstown Road.
 
He also asked that purchases at the library be cut, along with not budgeting $100,000 for a deputy police chief nor spending $60,000 for street lights.
 
On Monday, Finance Director Paul Salvatore was scrambling to prepare a new budget.
 
“I don’t have a clearly adopted budget, even though they passed a budget resolution,” he said.
 
One of the problems the staff faces is Imker used several round numbers in his budget analysis.
 
“It’s a little problematic,” Salvatore added.
 
Salvatore said the City Council was not really vocal during the budget hearings, and seemed to go along with the staff’s recommendations ... until Thursday night.
 
The Citizen emailed Imker a series of questions after Thursday’s vote and here are his emailed responses.
 
The Citizen: Was everyone on the City Council notified that you were going to propose such sweeping cuts?
 
Imker: “Please forgive me for this correction, but there are no ‘sweeping cuts’ from the current year’s budget to next. In fact, just the opposite has happened. Please make sure your readers understand that with the new budget we were able to add $3M of new spending on facilities/infrastructure without the need for a tax increase next year because of careful budgeting and planning the previous couple years. Additionally, we are significantly increasing spending on known problem areas like mowing and landscaping. This will bring us fully back to the point of where we were before the cuts of six years ago.
 
“Everyone will be noticing the improved look of the city. The bonus with the new approach is now we’ll have our own in-house labor, on call, so we can address any areas of concern raised by citizens and not depend on a contract with a fixed schedule or non-contracted areas. We’re increasing cart path repaving and maintenance. I couldn’t be happier that we’re finally going to be able to achieve this level of service.
 
“Tacking on another $1.7 million (1 mill tax increase worth of revenue generation) of additional spending and asking the citizens to pay even more on top of the last four years’ worth of increases in city taxes, fees and other service charges was simply not needed and not the right way to go in my opinion.
 
“The lack of economic recovery continues to hold back all our desires to increase services. When the economy finally turns around we can consider those increased levels of service — not before and especially not advancing those services with more taxes. I insist we live within our means.
 
“Now to your question. Everyone on council knew I supported the increased $3M spending on facilities and infrastructure as well as increased spending on cart path maintenance and landscaping. Did they know I didn’t support the additional 1 mill increase? You bet they did! I can’t count the number of times I mentioned the ‘Will of the voters’ on last November’s SPLOST and how I was going to respect that vote by the citizens to hold the line on road maintenance which was the bulk of the 1 mill increase”
 
The Citizen: Did you ever indicate during any of the budget hearings or workshops that you were opposed to raising the millage rate?
 
Imker: “I said so, on the record, during the very first public hearing, FY2015 Budget Hearing agenda item 07-14-01 held July 17. I said point blank, I do not support a mill increase. For many months prior to that everyone, everyone knew I was not going to support a mill increase. The city manager developed a proposed budget based on goals and objectives council identified. He did exactly as instructed. A budget was developed to meet those targets and it required an additional 1 mill tax increase to achieve them. All because he did this did not mean we were going to approve it.
 
“Development of the proposed budget by the city manager concluded after the mid-July public hearing. It became a baseline from which to judge for ourselves exactly what our priorities should be based on how much each of the services were going to cost. I hope everyone understands, this is program management 101. All because we asked for everything didn’t mean we were prepared to actually go out and buy it.”
 
The Citizen: Why did you wait until the last minute to propose your changes?
 
Imker: “It takes time to do what I did. I had been working on this for at least six months. It’s not easy getting the level of detail I needed to make sure all the facts were exactly right and what the consequences of every dollar means in terms of services to be provided. Imagine the ammunition provided to those who wanted to raise taxes even more if my data was flawed in anyway whatsoever. I wasn’t going to provide A- work. I wanted to provide A+ work.
 
“I wanted to get through the four public hearings (one on the budget and three on the mill rate) and hear the citizens’ voices on the baseline proposal before making my final recommendation. In fact, I heard many more folks say No to the tax increase than say Yes. In fact, one gentleman even spoke in favor of the increase at the first public hearing on the mill rate and then when he heard about the alternative I was working on he told me he didn’t know that someone was developing an alternative. He said he changed his mind on what he said at the first public hearing and was now against the tax increase; with good reason once he knew the accurate picture of the increases in services that were going to happen without the need for a tax increase.
 
“Everyone knew I was coming in with changes. Senior city staff knew it, all the council members knew it.
 
“Senior staff had been helping me with facts and costs I needed for the alternative proposal for months. This is something that just didn’t happen in the last week or so. The city manager knew what I was doing for months. He was copied on all my inquires with senior staff. He may not have agreed with what I was going to propose but that’s not his job. His job was to develop a proposed budget and then execute the direction the majority of city council sets. Making the final changes to the baseline proposed budget, both service wise and financially, literally took a month, from mid-July to the council meeting on Aug. 21. The city finance director helped me get the numbers right for the proposed alternate budget over the last month. These were not my numbers, they were staff’s numbers with the financial director concurring and that’s what was presented.
 
“Things were literally changing in the presentation up until the final hearing last Thursday evening. For example, not to eliminate the city’s police Special Response Team (SRT) was a last-minute change. That change happened because I didn’t have the final details at the level of fidelity I demanded of myself. I wasn’t going to recommend something without being 100 percent sure.
 
“The changes proposed are really not that radical. Half of it was not doing the 100 percent increase in road paving and keeping it at near the level as previous years. Forgive me for saving over 1/4 million tax dollars ($200K in off the top in outlay savings and $75K in reduced public works purchases of equipment) on recommending an approach for mowing and landscaping that will wind up with a better product and less overhead for the future of the city. Holding the line on salary and other such items are not earth shattering ideas. I told every one of the major changes I was going to be making. It wasn’t hard to figure out the alternative was going to be mostly roads, landscaping and salary. Anyone saying they didn’t know what was coming is not being frank.”
 
“Claiming these were last minute is not on my radar. They were probably shocked at the depth, accuracy, fidelity, simplicity, elegance and rationale of the final product that was shared last Thursday evening. That may have been the ‘last minute’ part that has everyone buzzing.
 
“This talk of how ‘hard’ it’s going to be to ‘change’ the budget now is utterly absurd. Staff has a month and a half to edit numbers in their databases. The five-year budget model with the zero mill increase plan already has all the numbers in it. It just needs to be adjusted for the SRT expense. If you look at the difference between the two five-year models (with 1 mill and without 1 mill) the difference is exactly $1.725M. I.e., 1 mill. This is exactly 100 percent accounted for with the new alternate budget.
 
“Generating panic by saying staff has to work weekends to ‘fix’ the budget when given a month and a half before the required deadline of Sept. 30 is nothing more than an amateurish attempt to discredit the new approved budget by those who desperately wanted to increase your taxes.”
 
The Citizen: Do you know the exact amount of the budget the City Council passed Thursday night?
 
Imker: “Yes. Data from the 5-year budget model with 0 mill in FY2015 presented shows the following:
 
“Total revenue = $30,349,986
 
“Total expenditure = $30,744,343 + ($15,000 because SRT wasn’t cut but was assumed cut in the model)
 
“Use of reserves = $ 394,397 + ($15,000 for SRT back in)
 
“Any changes the finance director includes next time we see the model will be because he has new information. That’s bound to happen. Experienced program manager know this. Just remember, changes that will be made to the new budget will have happened to the 1 mill increase plan equally, not because of the new budget direction.”
 
The Citizen: You said that you anticipate the budget being amended. Do you anticipate additional meetings in September before the new budget starts Oct.1?
 
Imker: “We passed a budget with known numbers. If there needs to be clarity on the exact dollar figures, because I was rounding in my presentation for ease of briefing purposes, then sure, we can go over the numbers again. I do not expect any changes related to the direction given.
 
“Again, experience is the key. No manager in the world can exactly predict what will happen in the future. Anybody who comes in with exactly the value for expenditures at the end of the fiscal year that were proposed in the beginning is not someone I would want on my team.
 
“As I said in the presentation, I expect the City Manager, Chief of Police, Fire/EMS Chief and Director of Community Services/Public Works to let us know how things are going half way through the fiscal year. If they say they can’t get the job done then we, council, will consider budget amendments. Heck, we made a million dollars in amendments this current FY. I would rather start at a reasonable level and see how things are going. This is taxpayer money, your money and mine. You elected me to be the guardian of your money and spend it wisely. I take that responsibility as a sacred oath.
 
“I know of no other government agency run as efficiently as Peachtree City government. We should be proud of all our public employees. This city is on a course that will keep it as one of the best places to live in Georgia, despite any naysayers.”
johenry
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Hold your nose and take it!!!

I'll take taxes staying flat, but we're forced to suffer more council in fighting to get it. They're undercutting Fleisch just like they did Haddix. Learnard always seems to be leading the charge to topple the mayors. It's embarrassing!!!

mudcat
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I don't see undercutting of anyone - I see good governing

Imker's answers to The Citizen were open and clear and I assume completely accurate. Only whiff of bad relations is Fleisch saying she and Terry were not aware of something. Whether that was the golf cart fees mentioned in the previous paragraph or the entire Imker presentation, context was not provided to the reader. And by the way, those golf cart registration fees are much too low. $50 to $100 per year would be more like it with a hefty discount for seniors. And a hefty fine for a teenager using a golf cart registered to a senior. I'd really like to see more police looking out for reckless driving on the cart paths. I see about 5 a day - really reckless driving, not just tailgating or speeding.

I do see the staff salary increases being less than were proposed - by staff and maybe that's why there is so much unneeded emotional verbiage in this report. I think Imker has lived up to his expectations and done a real fine job with the budget. There's nothing shocking about that. It is not the first time council did go 100% with a staff recommendation.

Husband and Fat...
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Don't assume

It makes an ass of u and me.

I'm glad Imker digs deep. Wish the others did this as well.

Imker may have been against a tax increase all along. But it would have also been easy for him to advise us residents that he was working on an alternative and simply told us when he was going to be ready to present this. It was rude to show up with 30 some slides at the last meeting when the majority of residents were prepared for an increase and didn't see a need to attend the meeting.

I don't believe one iota that the mad scientist just completed all these spreadsheets in his basement an hour before the meeting. He had plenty of time to drop this in our laps weeks ago so that staff, council and citizens had time to evaluate his ideas. It was silly to approve so quickly.

moelarrycurly
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mudcat-May I suggest

a little light reading. The agenda packet for the council meeting this week. Public hearing minutes from Aug. 21st 7:30AM meeting.

"Pennington said there would not be a 3% salary increase. It was a placeholder while staff waited for the results of a pay and classification study. Guilory (resident) said the 3% salary increase was driving the millage increase, asking if it would not be wise to wait for the results of the study."

"Salvatore said a 2% cost of living increase was built-in with no increase in the budget or millage rate. The Public works director salary had been eliminated, and there had been a decrease in the cost of the pension fund by $60,000. annually for two years. Those two things would take care of 1% of the 3%. He continued the 3% was a place holder. The study could say the salaries were fine. It would not be an across the board 3% raise."

There is more that anyone can read about who wants to get more of a picture of what is going on in the public meeting notes.

This "place holder" is bogus. There is an extremely expensive "pay and classification" study going on that is going to come in with results that will blow this budget. They all know this. Staff has been saying for years how understaffed and underpaid they are compared to other cities. No study like this has been done in what, ten years or more? There is a reason for that. We cannot afford the staff that this study will say we need to operate this city.

Imker's 5 year plan he is so desperately trying to hold on to had a 2% increase included. The 1% more is bogus. When the study results come in, this 1% will be a drop in the bucket. Imker know this, as does Pennington and Salvatore. Salvatore is trying to use other savings (pension and PW director) to justify this. So, Imker took it out.

As with all government, ask for the world and hope those in charge say yes. Or at least get some of what you ask for, even though no one asking for it cares the cost. This budget process is why our governments are so bloated at every level.

The most intelligent comment in that exchange? Guilory (sp?) who asked "if it would not be wise to wait for the results of the study". DUHHH. How sad is that? To have to say that as a citizen to city management? Mr. Guilory has more common sense than anyone else there.

Robert W. Morgan
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Certainly agree on the golf cart registration fee. $3 a year?

Also agree Imker is to be praised for his work. That's what an effective council member does. Sorry for all the times I called him Erica.

$3 a year for golf cart registration is a joke. Don't think $100 is the right number, but it sure needs to be at least $50. Seems pretty simple to me. We need revenue to maintain golf cart paths, golf carts use the paths, so have those that use the paths contribute to the effort. Might be good to register bikes as well - with a surcharge for non-residents. Runners and walkers get a free pass but maybe we can earn some money from some vending machines selling bottled water.

PhilPTC
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My take-away

My take-away: "All because we asked for everything didn’t mean we were prepared to actually go out and buy it.”

Good job to The Citizen for asking follow up questions that I believe Mr. Imker answered quite adequately. I found this article unusually educational.

mrobinson_ptc
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A Perspective on the FY2015 PTC Budget Process

After reading this article, watching the presentation live online, and not having seen the actual numbers Imker provided (since they are not published anywhere the general public can see online), I wanted to give a few perspectives from one citizen.

- It certainly appears that there was some confusion during the presentation, which I viewed online. The volume of information presented would have certainly given previous Councils, including those that contained three of our current Council members, pause to take their time and potentially table the budget vote.

- It certainly appears that, in reading this article, there was some failure to communicate among the members of the Council. While it is certainly the right of the members of the Council to vote their conscience, three Council members seemed to vote this in without much discussion. Perhaps they had all the information that two other Council members didn't?

- It certainly appears the Council Member Imker, who has worked previous budgets in the City, decided to not allow staff to properly vet his numbers before presenting. When Imker says that the Finance director concurred, and the Finance director said that the analysis was "a little problematic", I would gather staff wasn't on board.

- Saying things like training for groups other than public safety "just to get something on the wall" is short sighted and contrary to professional government, where continuing education and learning helps to keep the professional staff professional. While some may subscribe that some continuing education and training is questionable, some of it has true value to support operations, learn about new legislation, and network with other professionals and vendors.

- Imker clearly treats the budget as a game to play for the citizens. During the presentation, he laments that 4 of 5 voters didn't bother to vote in the last SPLOST election, but then he clearly panders to the 1 of 5 by holding the millage back and presenting his list of "cuts".

- Imker knows full well, and admits, that the budget process will be adjusted by at least a million dollars during the year, so things that he says will be saved could quite simply go away, very quietly, during the year. Take a look back at previous budgets - original to final versions - and see what happens. At least the budget presented by the City Manager was based somewhere close to reality.

- Imker's "program management" philosophy is seriously flawed. He admitted at the beginning of his presentation that he didn't understand how some of the operational processes work (please, go back and watch the video). His "salary study" was on the same level as a high school research paper, one-sided and slanted to a pre-ordained conclusion, not using comparable and professional comparisons of positions and work functions. Quite simply, the Council are members of the board of directors. Boards of directors trust their management, and if they don't, they get new management. In this case, it seems that instead of trusting management, they micromanage by identifying specific cuts.

- As a former government employee, it was embarrassing to watch this meeting, and I've seen MANY embarrassing meetings. Simple courtesy should have dictated the budget be tabled after the "37 slides". The millage being set, you could have waited. Now, you're front page fodder...AGAIN.

In the end, it simply doesn't matter, as there is plenty of "reserve" available to absorb this madness. If this continues, however, at some point, the money will run out, and actual tough decisions will need to be made.

Tough decisions like raising taxes in a Republican stronghold.

Council - stop playing games, and get down to giving your staff what they need to do their jobs better. You have no problem throwing thousands upon thousands of dollars to improve technology (which, from what I've heard, may still have challenges and even more costs ahead). Get serious about setting a strategic direction for the City, then have the backbone to let your staff run it.

4 out of 5 citizens don't care. This citizen says, you could have raised taxes this year.

=================================
After thinking about this a bit more, I've got another worry about all of this, and this one might get the City in trouble. In this article, Imker references the "5 year model" that shows the exact amount of the 2015 budget. Unfortunately, the officially presented resolution and attachment from the Council packet show no such 5 year model. Unless Imker's submitted documentation was approved and showed those specific totals, broken out by fund, the changes that Imker proposed and that were voted in DO NOT reconcile to the proposal, as Mr. Salvatore seems to explain from his quotes. That means the budget isn't really balanced, and Council approved something that just isn't true.

I believe an argument to the validity of the budget resolution adopted could be made. One of those who voted to approve the changes (perhaps Kim Learnard, who curiously seemed to be the "Sturbaum" to Imker's "Haddix" on this one, as the two certainly appeared to be in lock step), should bring it back for reconsideration with the accurate, proper numbers.

I would challenge Dar Thompson, whom I believe would be good to do this, to bring up this issue in person at the next Council meeting. Council needs to clean up this mess, that's for sure.

johenry
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Here we go again!!!

Mrobinson thinks 21,000 have to appear at a meeting to get the scoundrels to behave.

It's obvious Imker, Learnard and King short sheeted Fleisch and Ernst's bed. The viciousness of that gang is horrible.

Where were the 21,000 on election day???

dar thompson
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mrrobinson_ptc

I could not agree with you more!

I was at the meeting along with the other 12 or so citizens that attended (only 3 spoke against a tax increase). I am curious as to where the other 21,000 plus voters of this city were....all the voters that were against a millage increase. The citizens knew a millage increase was coming and practically everyone I've spoken with wanted the increase. The citizens of PTC want there city back.

Right or wrong, I got the impression that the council was totally taken by surprise by the "magic show" that Mr. Imker presented. Unfortunately, there are those who believe in magic as if it were reality. It was disingenuous for a council member to make a presentation of this nature in the 11th hour, with its conclusion only minutes before a vote. Why wasn't this information brought forth in the first public meeting where council, staff, and the citizens had sufficient time to review and discuss. The answer is simple...this was done by design.

Looking at the presentation, one might say, "wow, how did he do that"? Look, he's making all these cost disappear...we don't have to raise the millage rate after all. The problem here is simple, Mr. Imker lives in a world that exist on paper and if you've ever owned a company or companies, that which is on paper does not always translate to what happens in the real world.

Mr. Imker's presentation was not unlike telling Delta Air Lines you only need one pilot in the cockpit, especially since there is an auto-pilot. In Mr. Imker's world, he would be telling Delta just look at the savings...I've cut your pilot pay-roll in half.

On the other hand, I do think Mr. Imker has some good suggestions and made several quality observations. However, I think it's a waste of the tax-payers money for council to give staff a directive, have them work on it for months, and then say "never-mind" I stayed at a "Holiday Inn" last night and I've got a better idea. It's a slap in the face to staff and in light of the timing it is very unprofessional.

I'm curious to know if the Imker "Magic Show" changed the minds of one or two of the council members who voted down the millage increase. I can only hope that they know the difference between magic and reality.

Husband and Fat...
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Mrobinson - I agree

It simply should have been tabled for further review. I like that Imker tries to keep the finances in check, but it appears he's talking out both sides his mouth. If he really believed his numbers, he wouldn't have sprung this at the 11th hour when the majority of citizens were under the assumption that we were going to see some housekeeping brought up to date.

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