MARCH MADNESS HAS ITS ON FLAVOR IN 72342:
The text below is from an article that appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Arkansas Section (B), Page 1B, on Sunday, March 20, 2011.
Helena’s budget for 2011 still stuck
HELENA-WEST HELENA — Officials in Helena-West Helena are entrenched in a battle over the city’s 2011 expenditures, with each side holding its ground weeks past the budget deadline set by state law.
Mayor Arnell Willis has vetoed four budgets passed 6-4 by the City Council since January because he says they usurp his power as mayor to hire and fire. The budgets also omitted all newly hired employees and set elected officials’ salaries by resolution rather than ordinance, Willis said.
The six aldermen voting for the vetoed budgets say they mainly want to enforce pay ordinances that they believe Willis is largely ignoring. The four aldermen who have voted against the budgets side with Willis, however.
Neither side has budged, and tense council meetings have led to outbursts and angry exchanges.
Arkansas Code Annotated 14-58-202 mandates that municipalities adopt operating budgets on or before Feb. 1 each year.
City workers were furloughed for two days in February as part of the budget crisis, but Willis has vowed since then to continue to pay city workers and keep services operating, even though no legal provision exists for spending money without an approved budget.
“I have declared an emergency in this city, and we are operating for our citizens and our employees,” Willis said. “My original budget has been hijacked, the council tabled it, and they said we won’t discuss it any further.”
The six aldermen who have passed an alternative to the mayor’s budget four times are Marvin Jarrett, Lakesia Chandler, Larry Brown, Don Etherly, Chris Franklin and Monica Davis.
The four aldermen voting against the budgets are Joe St. Columbia, Jay Hollowell, Daniel Strickland and Eddie Clark Jr.
Willis has said the city is still operating under the 2010 budget. But Don Zimmerman, executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League, said the previous year’s budget is automatically void.
“A city doesn’t have any authority to spend after Feb. 1 unless the City Council has authorized that spending in some form, “Zimmerman said. “They must approve each expenditure individually.”
At last week’s City Council meeting, Hollowell moved to hold workshops where aldermen could hash out the budget dispute.
“I don’t understand why we can’t just sit down and go over this thing and get something done,” Hollowell pleaded. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me why we can’t talk this thing out.”
“Let’s talk it out right now,” Franklin replied.
“No, we would be here all night,” Hollowell said.
“So. l have all night. Let’s do this right now,” Franklin said.
“I am not going to do this right now, these good people in the audience don’t have all night, and it’s only fair that we schedule a time to meet and discuss passing a budget,” Hollowell said.
His motion failed 6-4.
During the meeting, Franklin turned to Hollowell and asked him to “step outside and settle this” after Hollowell demanded that Franklin “shut up.”
“We can go outside right now,” Franklin said, pointing to Hollowell, who sat right next to him.
“Alderman, you are out of line. You are out of line,” said St. Columbia, pointing toward Franklin, who was charged with misdemeanor terroristic threatening and harassment after a March 3 arrest unrelated to the council fights. He faces an April 14 hearing.
A flashpoint in the budget debate has been the mayor’s salary, which Franklin brought up during the meeting.
“Tell them what you make, Mayor!” Franklin yelled. “Tell them what you make! Tell them what you make! Why won’t you tell them what you make?”
Willis sat in silence as members of the audience began grumbling and shuffling around in their seats. A Helena-West Helena police officer paced around the council chambers.
“Welcome to Helena. This is what we deal with every day,” said a woman in the audience who asked not to be identified.
According to the budget that Willis has continually vetoed, he is to earn $48,000 annually, per the city’s basepay ordinance.
The ordinance states that a newly elected mayor should earn $48,000 for one year, then the City Council can entertain the possibility of a raise.
However, Willis is now earning $75,000 per year, according to city documents.
Etherly, one of the six aldermen voting for the budgets that have been vetoed, said Willis should have followed the base-pay ordinance in setting his salary.
“If the council wants to raise the salary, they can do that,” Etherly said. “But the base-pay ordinance is what we follow as the standard pay schedule, and that is what the pay is gonna be.”
Former Mayor James Valley earned $99,000 a year as mayor, city records show.
When asked why Willis set his salary higher than what was set in the base-pay ordinance, Willis said he had actually lowered the mayor’s salary because the 2010 budget had allocated the higher amount for Valley.
“We are still working off of the 2010 budget, so I lowered my salary to help save the city some money,” Willis said.
Willis contends that since he has declared an emergency for the city, he can continue to operate it within the confines of the 2010 budget.
“It’s imaginary, and all in his mind,” Etherly said of the emergency declaration. “No such authority exists related to a budget issue like we are having.”
Zimmerman said there is nothing in state statutes that allows a city to operate without an approved budget, though the likelihood of any outside intervention is slim unless a lawsuit is filed.
In 1996, before Helena’s merger with West Helena, Helena used a court order to operate under the previous year’s budget when officials could not agree on a budget by Feb. 1.
Compounding Helena-West Helena’s budget woes is more than $600,000 that it owes to the Internal Revenue Service for back payroll taxes that were not paid during Valley’s tenure as mayor.
Valley, who still regularly attends City Council meetings, said he was “blindsided” by the news that the taxes were not paid.
“They should have been paid,” Valley said. “I did not know anything about them not being paid.”
St. Columbia and others in Helena-West Helena contend that Valley’s supporters on the City Council are part of why the city can’t move forward with a 2011 budget.
“There are six council members trying to push a budget through that limits the mayor’s power,” St. Columbia said.
“They are wanting to control the mayor. They are wanting to run this city, and they are being led behind the scenes by the ex-mayor.”
Valley countered, “I am an easy target. It’s easy for them to say that these six members vote the way they do because of James Valley. But that just isn’t true.”
Valley is an attorney working at Etherly’s Helena-West Helena law firm. Etherly said that while he continues to support Valley, his disagreements with Willis have nothing to do with the former mayor.
“I support James. He is a longtime friend,” Etherly said. “Make no bones about that. But the main issue being presented here are about someone’s pay, and that has nothing to do with James Valley. It’s silly to think that. I don’t have anything against the current mayor.”
Meanwhile, the budget stalemate continues.
Willis contends that his version of the 2011 budget is the only way to reduce Helena-West Helena’s financial burdens. But, he said, he is being met with constant friction from the six council members.
“I came into this job as a business owner, a former naval officer, a former state representative,” Willis said. “I formulated a budget that requires a combination of things to fix this city’s financial woes. But what we have now is a solid gridlock.”