Monroe County’s council revisits spending decisions, OKs hires despite freeze, gets news of extra income tax revenue

The Monroe County council’s nearly four-hour meeting on Tuesday was capped off with a presentation from councilor Geoff McKim, who relayed some good financial news.

Cropped county council meeting Screen Shot 2020-05-12 at 9.13.24 PM
Screen grab of the May 12, 2020 meeting of Monroe County’s council, conducted on the Zoom videoconferencing platform.

Monroe County will receive about $1.4 million in supplemental local income tax (LIT) revenue for its general fund this year. That will be added to the roughly $13.3 million of LIT revenue in this year’s general fund budget.

McKim made a recommendation for use of the $1.4 million, based on the uncertain impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on future county revenues. The county should put the extra LIT revenue in the county’s rainy day fund, McKim said.

No vote was taken on the question. It’ll likely come up at the council’s work session on May 26.

McKim’s recommendation was consistent with the cautious approach the county council took on Tuesday to some spending decisions it had put off from its mid-April meeting.

Some of the decisions, like spending money on refurbishment of the Alexander Memorial, were put off again, while others, like the overhaul of telecom infrastructure in the Nat U. Hill meeting room, got approved.

Also winning approval were some requests from department heads to fill a few positions, despite the hiring freeze that the council imposed at the end of April.

Two vacant positions with the highway department were approved to be filled, when councilors were persuaded by highway director Lisa Ridge’s description of them as critical for maintaining safe travel for the public. The increased cost of deferring pothole patching and paving was also a factor in the decision.

The council also approved health administrator Penny Caudill’s request to fill a handful of positions in the health department: food sanitarian; environmental health specialist; nurse practitioner; a part-time disease intervention specialist position; as well as a couple of summer part-time positions.

The county’s chief probation officer, Linda Brady, asked for and got approval from county councilors to fill two vacancies for community corrections field officers based in part on the fact that they’re public safety positions. The council’s hiring freeze mentions public safety as a possible reason to make a special request. Also persuasive for councilors was the fact that the failure to fill the positions could result in returning unspent grant funds to the state.

One of the spending requests that the council put off at its mid-April meeting was a $181,000 appropriation from the cable franchise user fees to pay for upgrades to the IT infrastructure and sound system at the Nat U. Hill meeting room in the courthouse. Nat U. Hill is the council’s normal meeting room, which has not been used for meetings for the last few weeks, during the COVID-19 pandemic countermeasures.

At Tuesday’s meeting, McKim said he’d been mistaken to have supported postponing it before. McKim said he was persuaded by the fact that the work needs to be done now, when the room is not in use, as opposed to later, when meetings would need to be scheduled at different locations. The rest of the council agreed and voted unanimously for the meeting room telecomm upgrades.

Another of the spending requests that the council revisited from its mid-April meeting was a single item covering four projects: repair of the Alexander Memorial ($153,000), installation of vending machines ($30,000), ADA compliance for courthouse lawn flagstones ($60,000), parking garage deck sealing ($50,000).

The first step the council took was to divide the question so that each of the items could be considered separately. The final item, on parking garage deck sealing, was approved, based on reasoning similar to the approval of the two highway maintenance positions—deferred maintenance costs more in the long run.

The vending machines were nearly postponed indefinitely, but board of commissioners president Julie Thomas asked for a date certain. Councilors settled on August 25 as the date when they’ll next take up the vending machines again.

Getting a lot of discussion was the Alexander Memorial. It was one of the two items that Thomas said the commissioners didn’t want to put off—the other was the parking garage deck sealing. The merit of the Alexander Memorial refurbishing project wasn’t questioned by any of the councilors. They just wanted to have a clearer idea of the county’s financial picture before committing to the project.

Councilor Marty Hawk asked if the annual general obligation bond could be used to pay for the restoration of the monument. The answer from county attorney Margie Rice was no—the bond could be used only for the items listed, which did not include the Alexander Memorial.

Leading up to its approval of the 2020 budget, the council had amended out the memorial project from the bond list along with some other items, in an effort to lower to total amount of the bond. The council’s effort to lower the total bond amount came at Hawk’s urging. A decision against listing the Alexander Memorial among the bond items meant it was supposed be paid for out of cash balances, not that it wouldn’t be funded at all.

With Tuesday’s postponement, the Alexander Memorial will be the topic of discussion again, at the council’s May 26 work session.

The project to make the courthouse lawn compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) nearly was postponed until August along with the vending machines project. But disabilities advocate Randy Paul weighed in during public commentary on Tuesday to point out that compliance with the law is not discretionary.

Paul noted that this year is the 30th anniversary of the passage of the ADA. He never figured he would spend as much time trying to ensure compliance as he’d put into getting the legislation passed, Paul said.

The council will be taking up the courthouse lawn ADA compliance project at its May 26 work session.