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Warren council passes budget at deadline

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published July 2, 2020


WARREN — Warren residents will pay a little more for water and sewer services and a little less in taxes, and the City Council wanted added control over capital expenditures through the Downtown Development Authority in the city’s budget for the coming year.

After weeks of hearings and discussions by Zoom video that culminated with a tense exchange between Council President Pat Green and Warren Mayor Jim Fouts in mid-June, council members voted to approve the city budgets for the 2020-2021 year, including the water and sewer budget, on June 30, the very last day on the fiscal calendar.

Council members met via Zoom, where the first and second reading of the water and sewer budget was approved by a 6-1 margin after an emergency motion.

“This is an emergency because we have to get this done today,” Council Secretary Mindy Moore said.

Council member Eddie Kabacinski cast the lone vote against the water and sewer budget that included an 8.5% increase in rates, pared down slightly from the 8.75% increase recommended by the Fouts administration.

“A 0.25% decrease is not that much of a decrease,” Kabacinski said. “It still will be a burden on the residents to have any kind of increase, especially when many people have not been working and they’re facing their own budget shortfall themselves. I don’t think this is the right time for an increase.”

Warren City Controller Richard Fox signed into the online meeting to say that the 8.5% increase was needed to offset costs of the city’s detention basin project, regulatory requirements including improvements at the Waste Water Treatment Plant, and to offset reduced water consumption that has resulted in less revenue to meet fixed operational costs.

“The 8.5 is very necessary. It’s really the minimum that we can approve this year,” Fox said.

Council member Garry Watts said he was prepared to vote no on an increase but that the money had to come from somewhere to meet the city’s obligations. Green said much of the increase had been passed down to the city as a wholesale water customer through the Great Lakes Water Authority.

“We’re either going to raise water rates or we’re going to raise taxes. It’s got to be paid somehow,” Watts said. “Let’s just go forward with it and get it done.”

The council later voted 5-2 to pass the city’s nearly $300 million budget for the coming year with a list of amendments, including the elimination of positions in the mayor’s office and the Planning Department, along with a reallocation of funds for capital improvements recommended as part of the DDA’s budget.

Kabacinski and Councilman Ron Papandrea voted no on a motion to approve the budget with a list of amendments. They joined Council member Angela Rogensues — who ended up voting for the budget — in questioning why a list of the changes hadn’t been prepared in advance for review ahead of the meeting.  

“I think our budget vote is the most important vote we do every year,” Papandrea said. “I need to get changes in the budget to me in writing at least 24 hours in advance, and I need (City Controller) Rick Fox to have them so I can get his opinion on these changes. It’s the intelligent thing to do.”

Rogensues said, “I specifically asked at the previous meeting to receive changes 24 hours in advance so that I would be able to make some informed decisions about what is being added.  Now, there’s dozens of changes and I’m supposed to be voting responsibly on a budget when I’ve just heard the information for the first time. That’s not good governance.”

Rogensues made a motion to table the budget that was supported by Papandrea and Kabacinski, but she failed to garner majority support.

Green said the budget amendments represented the result of council input compiled during the hearings and questioned Rogensues as to whether she wished to make additional changes.

“The council worked together to pass a budget, and when we are working together and we get a majority, and once we get to that point of majority, further negotiation isn’t necessary,” Green said. “So when we’ve got four or five people on this to come through with making recommendations throughout these several months, and calling and asking questions, and getting information from the administration, changes were made to their recommendations, and those changes resulted in a reduction in the taxes to the public.”

Councilman Jonathan Lafferty said he was pleased with the budget as approved, particularly with the change in at least $6.4 million in budgeted expenditures through the DDA.

“We’re moving the money from the control of the DDA back to the authority of the council, where this shadow government that does not report, is not accountable to the citizens, will no longer have control of millions of dollars at their discretion without any oversight by this body,” Lafferty said. “This is the response. If you cannot provide the information, if you cannot provide the backup material, if you cannot provide the information that this body is requesting, that is being used to fund your projects, your pet projects, your spendthrift spending, I’m not going to provide the money. Plain and simple. This budget reflects a council that is accountable to the residents, 100%.”

On July 1, Fouts said he intended to meet with his staff to discuss the amendments, including the apparent elimination of Executive Administrator Amanda Mika’s position.

The mayor said he was not permitted to complete his presentation during the budget hearing for his office on June 18 and was muted at Green’s direction during the Zoom session.

“I will say, according to the city charter, the budget has to be approved by the third week in May. They’ve chosen not to do that,” Fouts said.

He said traditionally that amendments are discussed with city administrators but that it didn’t happen this time.

“They didn’t bother to call me or Fox up. Fox didn’t find out about it until that night,” Fouts said. “This is the most difficult City Council in the world.”