By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(May 31, 2018) The Berlin Town Council on Monday voted 3-2 not to include an administrative assistant for Police Chief Arnold Downing in the fiscal year 2019 budget.
Downing, during a public budget workshop last month, said he was disappointed the request had been taken out of a previous budget draft.
“We put $45,000 [in the budget]. The numbers came back and those numbers were changed,” Downing said at the time. “I stood on the table a little bit and said, ‘Why did the numbers go ahead and change?’ especially without me having any idea or notice, and that’s where we were.”
He said the new position would be for high-level administrative work, including managing training and firearm records, and would free up himself and other officers to focus more on police work.
Councilman Dean Burrell, during a first reading for the fiscal 2019 budget on Monday, said he was surprised the position was not included, adding he only learned of the exclusion that day.
“We had spoken about that and we were provided what I felt was legitimate information, which expressed a genuine need. And to find that position was not included was kind of disheartening,” he said.
Mayor Gee Williams said Downing did not provide necessary information to Town Administrator Laura Allen, who helped prepare the budget.
Allen, when asked if she had received sufficient information, replied “no” and added, “The focus of his pitch to me was ‘everybody else has one, I want one too.’”
“The process was incomplete and therefore the ability for the town administrator to make a recommendation to the mayor and council [was not there],” Williams said.
As an example, Williams said a request for information on calls for service in other communities as compared to Berlin was not answered.
“That’s just one thing I know of and there were some other discussions,” he said. “I don’t think there was any ill intent here … at the same time, I have concerns whenever we don’t follow a process that’s gotten us to a very good point financially, providing a more services than we ever have.”
Williams repeatedly said the process was not followed and suggested an addition this late into budget development amounted to “going around the budget process.”
“I’m not that type of guy. I just want you to know that, but this is something I think is needed and if it’s within my authority as a member of this council, I would like to move that that position be included in this year’s budget,” Burrell said.
“I will bring the motion up for a vote and also say, it’s supposed to be my budget – why the hell didn’t I know a damned thing about it?” Williams said. “I’m not hard to get along with – I’m very accessible. And the last I heard anything about this was in 2011 for heaven’s sake.”
Councilman Thom Gulyas said he understood both sides, but if Allen believed she asked for information and it was not provided, “I do feel that it’s a runaround.”
“We do have this process … I think it’s something that we should stick with,” he said. “It just seems a little strange to me that all the sudden it’s thrown out there at the last minute that this position be brought in, and now here we are discussing it again.”
“We all have our opinion, but the bottom line is we all have a vote,” Burrell said. “I made a motion, so this could be either voted up or down. And, as always, I will stand by the decision of the council.”
Downing, for his part, said he believed information was provided before the deadline he was given, adding there was a disconnect somewhere between the request and what information was given to the mayor and council.
“If I go ahead and give a document to a town administrator or make a statement, and the mayor makes a statement of why is this the first time we’re hearing about it, then that’s where the disconnect is,” he said.
According to Downing, he was told the request needed to include a job description and salary.
“Those things were actually listed, they were sent,” he said. “If it was not sufficient information, I have no problems and we can go ahead and say there was not sufficient information.
“I actually haven’t had an assistant since I’ve been a police chief, which is 15 years and, if I have to wait another year or another year, I’ll still do the same job that I’ve been doing the best I can do,” Downing added.
Councilman Zack Tyndall asked if Downing was open to “working with the town administrator to try and figure out an amicable way to assess whether that position is a need.”
“I don’t have a problem working with the town administrator on anything,” Downing said. “Moving forward, on this topic, I will definitely go ahead and work with her and provide whatever information is necessary.”
“I feel like I don’t have enough information to really say ‘yes,’” Tyndall said.
Burrell, on the other hand, said he felt the information was sufficient, given the amount of public discussion over several meetings, “and my assumptions.”
Burrell and Councilman Elroy Brittingham voted in favor of the motion to add the position, while Gulyas, Tyndall and Councilman Troy Purnell voted against it.
“I’m hoping … that all parties can learn from this,” Williams said. “The Berlin Police Department is doing a very good job …but this is about a budget process and, let’s face it, budgets are not fun. But I think the procedures that we’ve implemented and were all in place in the last several years have served us well.”
The mayor and council will vote to adopt the fiscal 2019 budget during its next scheduled meeting, Monday, June 11 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall. A public hearing to allow for public comments must be held before its adoption.
Allen, on Monday, said the proposed fiscal 2019 budget totaled $17.963 million, about 5.7 percent less than the previous budget.
She said capital projects totaled $3.8 million, about 17 percent less than in fiscal 2018.
Also during the meeting, the council voted unanimously, 5-0, to retain the current property tax rate of 0.68 cents per $100 of valuation.