What's wrong with the budget?

“What’s wrong with the budget?”

Blackshear Councilman Corey Lesseig posed that question multiple times last week after fellow council members Linda Gail Dennison, Shawn Godwin and Timmy Sapp voted down a proposed $2.6 million budget last Thursday, citing concerns with the proposed spending plan, but providing little explanation as to what departments or line item budgets they would like to see amended.

Lesseig didn’t get an answer last week, but those council members did present three budget suggestions at a called work session Monday night. (See related stories).

Contacted by phone, Dennison told The Times Friday she had no further comment “right now” regarding her disapproval of the budget before hanging up.

“I’m not going to talk to you,” she said.

Dennison commended City Clerk Jenny Grant last Thursday, however, for her assistance in answering Dennison’s budget related questions.

Grant confirmed Dennison requested copies of budgets for the last two years and a description of the special projects manager’s job, a position currently held by Police Chief Chris Wright.

“I gave her a copy of the budget and the meeting minutes from the committee meeting from the day the special projects manager was discussed because we don’t actually have a job description,” Grant said.

Dennison reportedly also requested meeting minutes from September 2019 until January 2020, and asked for work session minutes as well. The city does not keep work session minutes, however.

Godwin was also vague Thursday night about his specific budget concerns and told The Times via email Friday he didn’t trust The Times “to report what I say accurately without twisting the words.”

“That’s why it will be a long time before I’ll comment on anything to The Blackshear Times,” Godwin wrote. “(The Times) litterly bashed me for three months straight every newspaper, because I have different viewpoints from you and your friends. Just because we have different viewpoints doesn’t make you right and me wrong. I’ll always do what I believe is the right thing for the City no matter the cost. I wish (The Times) nothing but success weekly, and hope one day the trust will be rebuilt. However, it will be a while.”

The Times learned by way of an open record request that Godwin presented two budget-related questions to Mayor Grissom via email Wednesday, June 17. Sapp was copied on the email.

Godwin’s questions were as follows:

1. I would like to see pay raises for the department heads and their departments. Reason being to ensure everyone is getting a fair raise this year.

2. Second, I would like to know where we are pulling the money for the Special Projects Manager. It seems to have not appeared in the budget.

Grissom replied the same day via email, reporting Better Hometown Manager Bethany Strickland would be the only department head receiving a raise above the proposed 3 percent cost of living raise for all employees. Grissom proposed raising her salary to $19.50/hour, a .75 cent hourly increase.

In answer to Godwin’s second question regarding the position of special projects manager  — a post for which Police Chief Chris Wright receives a $10,000 annual stipend  — Grissom replied the stipend was allocated for on Page 9 of the budget under a line item for administration.

Employee salaries for the administration line item total $50,500, and include city hall employee Yolanda Maddox’s salary, the special projects manager stipend and a $7,500 stipend for the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and safety coordinator, a position held by Fire Chief Bucky Goble. Goble’s stipend would be an increase of $2,500 over FY20. The budget reflects no increase for Wright’s stipend.

Grissom also included an explanation for those proposals in his reply to Godwin.

“She (Bethany) has done an outstanding job, and especially during this pandemic bringing in more revenue to our businesses and city,” he wrote.

“Bucky handles all of our worker compensation claims, writes grants, handles all of our ADA compliance as well as safety issues. He also saves our city $1,200 - $2,000 having to send out work to other companies to equip all our vehicles, public works, police and fire with lights, siren, radios, cages, etc.”

Although Grissom is not proposing Wright receive a stipend increase in FY21, he also attached an explanation of costs savings Wright has reportedly accrued for the city in his role as special projects manager  — approximately $18,000 in direct savings and another $20,000 in grant funds and interest accrual. Wright also reportedly coordinated financing for the wastewater treatment plant project that helped the city avoid an additional $150,000 cost for interim financing.

Grissom says he never heard from any other council member who voted no on the budget approval prior to Thursday’s meeting.

Sapp told The Times just prior to Thursday’s meeting he had budget concerns as well, but was never able to meet with the mayor.

“Me and Shawn asked for a sit down with the mayor and he told us to talk to Chris Wright (special projects manager). I just don’t agree with that,” Sapp said. “I don’t have anything against Chris, but we’ve always met with mayors when we had problems. We didn’t meet with employees.”

Grissom told The Times he cleared his schedule on a Sunday earlier in the month to meet with Godwin and Sapp and never heard from them.  On a later date when the councilmen requested to meet, Grissom says he was out of town and suggested they meet with Wright since he had integral knowledge of the budget in his duties as both special projects manager and police chief.

Mayor pro tem Charles Broady who was absent from Thursday’s meeting, also told The Times prior to the meeting he had budget concerns. Broady was to call The Times back Friday to relate those concerns, but never did so.

The proposed City of Blackshear general fund budget for fiscal year 2021, set to begin July 1, balances evenly at $2,647,020 and projects no tax increase or change in services for city residents.

The budget as advertised and made available to city residents for review at city hall is 57 pages long and contains line item budgets for 29 separate departments/accounts. The proposed budget also reflects separate line item budgets for five capital project accounts such as TSPLOST, SPLOST and hotel/motel tax and line item budgets for 10 enterprise funds, primarily water and sewer services.

Editor’s Note: Blackshear City Council again reviewed the budget at a work session and appeared to reach a consensus Monday evening. A meeting has been called for Wednesday, June 24, at 6 p.m. for the purpose of again considering adoption of the FY21 budget.