There seems to be some confusion on City Council about the role of its finance committee.
We’ll try to help clear that up.
Councilors Michael Brooks and Johnnie Walton complained last week that the committee has too much power. They claim that whatever the committee decides is what gets approved or not by the whole council.
Of course, they aren’t on the committee. On it are Mayor Joe Peel and his appointed councilors Anita Hummer, Lena Hill-Lawrence and Ray Donnelly.
Last May, the finance committee examined City Manager Rich Olson’s recommended $75.7 million budget proposal that included a 3-cent tax hike — on the heels of news that electric rates would go up nearly 4 percent.
He identified seven projects the tax hike was tied to, totaling nearly $380,000 in spending in the 2012-13 budget year.
Projects included long-needed technology upgrades, renovations to the former middle school, cameras for police cruisers, a ladder truck for the fire department, radio upgrades for fire and police, Charles Creek Park pavilion upgrades and improvements to Edgewood Park.
Walton and Brooks had supported a proposed 1-2 percent cost-of-living pay increases for city employees without adding any new taxes.
To his credit, Brooks suggested paying for the pay raise by cutting $23,200 for a dog park and $80,000 for a maintenance building at South Park.
Walton simply expressed his displeasure of having to vote on a budget without having the same input as the finance committee.
“I really don’t like the way things are being done,” Walton said.
Still, there were full eight-member council budget sessions, of which he was a part.
In June, the budget passed upon the recommendation of the committee. Passed were the 3-cent tax hike Olson proposed, as well as a 1.5 percent pay increase for city employees. Brooks voted for it and Walton against it.
In September, the finance committee deliberated a plan to divide $44,500 in community support grant funds among 15 nonprofits. Again, the committee sent its recommendation to the full council for a vote.
Nothing was written in stone, and council was free to change any or all of it before voting. Its hands were not tied by the finance committee.
Then in January, the finance committee voted to recommend that City Council deny a request by sweepstakes café operators to have a portion of their license fees refunded after a state Supreme Court court ruling that resulted in their closings.
The mayor broke a 4-4 tie to follow the finance committee recommendation to reject the sweepstakes operators’ request.
Walton and Brooks, who voted against the recommendation, criticized Olson for having sent the request to the finance committee to examine first, rather than wait until presenting it to the full council.
Not finished, the pair earlier this month levied more criticism — this time at the role of the finance committee in reviewing the city’s annual budget.
Hill-Lawrence had to explain that the finance committee has no real power or authority — that it simply makes recommendations to City Council and council can do what it wishes to do.
Hummer said if they are so displeased with the finance committee, they could make a motion to abolish it. Of course such a motion wouldn’t pass with the makeup of this current council, but they didn’t take her up on her offer anyway.
Walton did make a motion to replace finance committee budget work sessions with work sessions of the full City Council. That failed, with only Brooks and Walton supporting it.
In explaining the role of the committee, Hummer correctly said the finance committee is simply a starting place for budget discussions to start. All council members are free to attend those meetings.
“There’s no holding anything back from anyone,” Hummer said.
The mayor also reminded everyone that he has simply been following the guidelines that were in place under former Mayor Roger McLean, whom Peel defeated. Walton and Brooks were McLean supporters.
“I believe one of the primary benefits of having a finance committee is to allow members to have more in-depth discussion on financial issues, which is sometimes not practical during a council meeting due to the number of items on the agenda,” Peel said in a memo to City Council last month.
He noted that all items provided to the finance committee are also distributed to all city councilors before the committee meeting.
Thus, no one is being shut out of anything. And the finance committee is functioning as it was intended — in the interest of city residents.