On a marquee outside East Ridge City Hall, the crooked letters spelled urgency Tuesday: special called meeting tonight.
The message caught the attention of 40 angry residents who shook their heads in disbelief as they listened to city officials explain their way through a botched budget.
According to City Manager William Whitson, East Ridge fell behind $657,000 for a budget period that ended June 30. The news isn't any better for a budget that's yet to be approved, as he predicted another shortfall for 2011.
A white paper sign marked with black ink was passed around the small room: "We want a state audit."
"I know this is disappointing news," Whitson said in his opening remarks. "If there's any blame or those kinds of things ... you can cast that blame on me."
Councilman Denny Manning didn't hesitate, criticizing Whitson's financial management and questioning an $8,000 raise he offered his administrative assistant after she showed him another job offer she received.
"When your contract comes up again, I will not vote to renew it," Manning concluded. "I won't back off."
The city manager said the budget numbers were preliminary and unaudited, adding that "we don't think we'll ever know" what happened. He blamed a shaky overall economy and "bad luck with the weather," referring to flood repair in 2009.
"We tried to plan ahead, but at the end of the day some of these issues overwhelmed those efforts," Whitson said.
Councilman Brent Lambert said Whitson's explanation was "not acceptable," and Councilman Larry Sewell went further.
"I'm leaning to call the state in here to do some checking," Sewell said. "And we need to do some major cutting."
Sewell recommended axing already controversial public relations funding completely and fees for City Attorney John Anderson "quite a bit."
Communication apparently broke down, as Manning and Sewell became aware of the meeting through a legal budget notice in the Times Free Press.
"He told us we were in the green for so long and never said we were in the red," Manning said.
The East Ridge City Council will hold a budget session Monday at 4:15 p.m. at a location to be determined.
Both men called the special meeting and alleged that Whitson did not want budgetary discussion in public, a charge the city manager denied Tuesday.
All councilmen attended the special meeting except outgoing Mayor Mike Steele, who was on vacation.
Lately East Ridge officials have touted the city's financial strength, even buying a crumbling community pool for $120,000. Repairs for that pool could cost between $500,000 and $750,000, Whitson said last month.
One resident summed up several who spoke Tuesday evening.
"Who was asleep at the wheel?" Marc Gravitt asked.
No one answered.
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