published Monday, August 9th, 2010

East Ridge deficit proving costly


by Chris Carroll

WHAT’S NEXT

East Ridge officials will hold a budget workshop today at 4:15 p.m. On Thursday, a 6 p.m. public hearing for the budget’s second reading will precede a 6:30 p.m. council meeting. All events are at East Ridge City Hall.

With a large deficit recently revealed in last year’s budget, some East Ridge officials say they may take a confrontational approach at today’s budget workshop.

Council members may ask William Whitson, the city manager they hired 18 months ago, to resign.

“It’s a consideration,” Councilman Larry Sewell said Friday. “He dropped the ball with us and he admitted it. We’ve got to start looking at major cuts starting from the top.”

Whitson’s annual salary is $112,000, city records show.

“They have the right to make that judgment,” Whitson said. “I got the message by e-mail. We’ll see how that discussion goes.”

Whitson said a resignation would be “premature” at this point, despite the $657,000 deficit in last year’s budget.

“We’ve never had outside, economic events align the way they have,” he said. “I’m preparing a corrective action plan with how we do these budget forecasts, and at this point that’s all I can do.”

Whitson has said the budget numbers are preliminary and unaudited, but he also said “we don’t think we’ll ever know” what happened. He has blamed a shaky overall economy and “bad luck with the weather,” referring to repairs after East Ridge was flooded in 2009.

Sewell also criticized spending over $90,000 on Waterhouse Public Relations during the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Councilman Denny Manning aligned with Sewell on the Whitson question and was the only official to directly challenge the city manager in public. He said he would not support a contract renewal for Whitson, who re-signs a contract with the city on an annual basis.

When it became apparent that East Ridge was in the hole at the end of the last fiscal year, Manning and Sewell demanded a public meeting to discuss the mistakes that led to the deficit.

Outgoing Mayor Mike Steele and Vice Mayor Tom Card supported the city manager while Councilman Brent Lambert said he “would weigh his full body of work” before making a decision.

This is the ninth time in 19 years that East Ridge’s budget is busted, but it’s easily the largest margin in that span, city documents show.

Sewell said pay raises to police officers may be canceled, but he quickly shifted his focus to city attorney John Anderson. East Ridge’s part-time legal expert made $162,450 in 2009.

“That’s got to be cut way back,” Sewell said.

He also wants to cancel funding for several staff positions, but he said he wasn’t sure which ones would meet the ax.

All councilmen interviewed last week said raising taxes was not an option, but several said they’ve already accomplished all the “easy cuts.”

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