The Norman Transcript

June 12, 2013

City budget slashed further

By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — The Norman City Council approved $521,400 for Legacy Park fountain enhancements, then — minutes later — slashed the general fund budget by $533,629 on Tuesday.

The two items dealt with different funding sources, but city council members commented on the irony during the debate over spending.

“We need something to set Norman apart,” Council member Chad Williams said prior to voting in support of fountain enhancements. The enhancement package passed in a 6-3 vote, with Mayor Cindy Rosenthal and council members Greg Jungman and Roger Gallagher voting against.

After nearly three hours of debate over the budget, the council adopted it by a narrow margin in a 5-4 vote with Williams, Gallagher and council members Dave Spaulding and Robert Castleberry voting against.

Following the routine adoption of the consent agenda that included water well permitting and new floors for Irving and Whittier rec facility gyms, the debate over the Legacy Park fountains started the controversial ball rolling.

Parks Director Jud Foster said the $500,000 fountain enhancement package would add seven water cannons, 21 spray nozzles, programming animation and colored LED lighting to the fountains approved in the base bid for Legacy Park amenities.

Jungman objected to the expenditure, saying he wants to pay the TIF off early so that sales tax money can be put into the general fund sooner.

Council members Tom Kovach and Jim Griffith said Legacy Park and its fountains will draw people to the area.

“I think we have one opportunity to do something spectacular,” Griffith said.

Rosenthal said the fountains are fine as proposed in the base bid, and the city does not need to spend $500,000 on dancing fountains with lights.

“It’s time to be prudent,” she said, adding that the city still will have a wonderful project.

“This is economic development with money that is already in the bank,” Castleberry said.

Last-minute cuts to the proposed FY 2014 budget also drew debate.

City staff brought forward those budget cuts in response to Castleberry’s request. A certified public accountant, Castleberry voiced strong concerns about the continued use of the general fund to balance the budget for the past several years.

City Manager Steve Lewis said the additional cuts should not affect essential services but other revenue sources are needed to boost the general fund in the long term.

Castleberry said if more money comes in, these items could be reinstated.

“I think you have to live within your means,” Castleberry said.

The items cut Tuesday night will be reviewed in September. Some services that will be reduced include asphalt for street improvements, contracted street sweeping and professional training for city staff.

In some cases, these additional cuts may be appropriate. Public Works Director Shawn O’Leary said a $30,000 cut to the electricity allowance for street lights will be offset by electric savings created by the city’s installation of LED lights.

The budget cut package proposed trimming $1,200 from money that would normally go to the Firehouse Arts Center. Other cuts included Sooner Theatre, tree maintenance, youth baseball and other parks and recreation accounts.

In most cases, these cuts represent only a portion of funding, but in 20 percent of the line items, those items will be cut completely.

Castleberry said he will donate his $100 monthly council salary to Sooner Theatre and the Firehouse to make up the difference.

“Our total revenue has gone up every year,” Castleberry said, citing figures through the recession years. All revenue is not sales tax. Unfortunately, spending has increased even more than revenue, he said.

“We started with $12 million in our savings pot,” Castleberry said. “Now it’s down to $3 (million).”

The council approved cutting $478,829 in general fund services and maintenance and supply and materials categories in an 8-1 vote, with Jungman dissenting.

Another item cutting $27,040 impacting staff training and travel allocations drew less support from the city council, but the measure passed 5-4, with Griffith, Jungman, Kovach and Rosenthal voting against.

Traffic control and consulting services were cut by $27,760 in an 8-1 vote, with Jungman dissenting.

In contrast to his opposition to the service cuts, Jungman proposed that the budget be reduced by $85,000 by delaying hiring a retail marketing coordinator by one year. He said the expense is not justified, considering services that are being cut.

Chamber President John Woods said other cities, such as Moore and Edmond, have retail coordinators and Norman needs the position to get a seat at the table when competing for new business.

“We need customers to create business, not business to create customers,” Ann Gallagher said. “There is no need for this right now.”

Council members voted against the amendment 2-7, with Jungman and Roger Gallagher supporting the amendment.

After all the debate, Castleberry said he would not support deficit spending. He called on his colleagues to vote against approving the budget, resulting in the narrow margin of approval.

In another unconventional move, the Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau budget was postponed at the request of Kovach, who said he wants more information on how that money will be used.

The NCVB is funded through the hotel motel sales tax.

Joy Hampton