Council Member Kim Learnard (left) and Mike King joined Eric Imker (right) in passing a budget with no tax increase. City staff are still trying to figure out exactly how to incorporate the changes laid out in Imker’s proposal.
Council Member Kim Learnard (left) and Mike King joined Eric Imker (right) in passing a budget with no tax increase. City staff are still trying to figure out exactly how to incorporate the changes laid out in Imker’s proposal.

Peachtree City staff are still working on revising the budget to reflect the changes that Council member Eric Imker proposed and had adopted “in the 11th hour” with support from fellow Council members Mike King and Kim Learnard. Imker’s plan eliminated the proposed 1-mill property tax increase and reduced some of the planned increases in services, among a series of changes in the 18 he proposed.

Financial Services Director Paul Salvatore said by e-mail Monday that Imker “rounded all his figures” in presenting 18 proposed revisions to the Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

“[So], there is still some confusion about the intent of the motions made,” Salvatore said. He added that staff still needs to sort out some details before a properly amended budget can be approved. One of Imker’s suggestions, for example, was to have City Manager Jim Pennington cut $100,000 out of the budget in whatever way he saw fit. Pennington will have to decide where those cuts will come. Salvatore said there is also some lack of clarity in the area of landscaping and paving, two categories Imker cut most starkly in his revisions to the proposed budget.

“Once we identify the correct numbers to use for appropriations, we can then accurately state what the intended use of cash reserves will need to be in order to balance the budget,” Salvatore said.

Salvatore also said he was “not sure, at this point” how discrepancies in Imker’s numbers and the real budget numbers will be addressed as this method of approving a budget was so uncommon. Typically, he said, council adopts a budget resolution that “references (and normally includes) a clear summary of sources and uses of funds.” In this case, council approved a budget and some of Imker’s 18 point revision plan, which included “round numbers.” Salvatore said staff is currently adjusting the budget based on the numbers in the individual items that council voted on, rather than Imker’s totals.

Mayor Vanessa Fleisch suggested at Thursday’s meeting that council table the vote on the budget so staff could clarify those issues. The millage rate had to be approved that night, and it was approved with no rate increase based on a 3-2 vote in which Imker, Learnard, and King voted yes, while Fleisch and Terry Ernst opposed. The budget, however, does not have to be approved until the very end of September, as Peachtree City’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Fleisch’s suggestion to table the budget vote was put forth as a motion by Ernst, but died when nobody offered a second. Imker, Learnard, and King seemed intent on getting a version of Imker’s budget passed that night and were successful doing so.

Imker said in an e-mail that he had worked over six months on his detailed, hour-long budget presentation he gave Thursday night.

“Everyone knew I was coming in with changes.  Senior city staff knew it, all the council members knew it,” Imker said, “Senior staff had been helping me with the facts and costs I needed for the alternative proposal for months. These were not my numbers, they were staff’s numbers with the financial director concurring and that’s what was presented.”

Imker wholly rejected the notion that he came in and made changes in the “11th hour,” as was commented on Thursday night.

“Claiming these were last minute is not on my radar. They were probably shocked at the depth, accuracy, fidelity, simplicity, elegance, and rationale of the final product that was shared last Thursday evening,” Imker said. “That may have been the ‘last minute’ part that has everyone buzzing.”

Imker also rejected the idea that staff will have difficulty amending the budget to reflect the changes passed by council.

“This talk of how ‘hard’ it’s going to be to ‘change’ the budget now is utterly absurd,” Imker said. “Generating panic by saying staff has to work weekends to ‘fix’ the budget when given a month and a half before the required deadline of September 30th is nothing more than an amateurish attempt to discredit the new approved budget by those who desperately wanted to increase your taxes.”

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Imker rejects notion that budget proposal was surprising

Council Member Eric Imker says “everyone knew” he was going to be proposing changes to the budget on Thursday night. What’s less clear is what details were shared and with whom prior to the meeting.

Mayor Vanessa Fleisch said in an e-mail Monday that she urged the council to table a budget vote “because Mr. Imker did not share his new budget with me or Council Member [Terry] Ernst prior to the meeting.”

Fleisch and Ernst found themselves two against three at the meeting, with Kim Learnard and Mike King supporting most of Imker’s budget revisions and his suggestion to maintain the millage rate as opposed to raising it 1-mill, as had been proposed by city staff.

“I am not in the habit of voting on items that I have not researched, and I wanted the time to review the proposal prior to passage,” Fleisch said Monday. “We will now regroup and see how these changes can be made and make this budget work for our City.”

Learnard said Monday that she had been contacted by Imker before the meeting and they “argued his proposal at length.” King said Thursday was not the first time he heard Imker’s proposal and added that they “were in nearly daily communication.” King also said “some of the proposals he presented were originated by others on Council.”

Learnard and King were each asked by Today in Peachtree to respond to comments from Finance Director Paul Salvatore and City Manager Jim Pennington that the late-in-the-game budget changes flew in the face of what they felt were the priorities council had given them earlier in the year.

“To put it bluntly, you’re changing your priorities. That’s what it is,” Pennington said Thursday.

Learnard agreed that council gave staff “marching orders” during workshops in January and that the City Manager’s proposed budget took into account those goals.

“Speaking only for myself, I still value the Council goals we listed and discussed earlier this year, but because the tax digest has not gone up the way we (I) had anticipated, I believe it is prudent to put our goals on hold and keep our belts tight for another year,” Learnard said in an e-mail. “That does not mean that next year we can’t implement every one of those goals and pass a budget to do so. But we’ll see where we stand on the tax digest and a host of other considerations next year.”

King suggested the changes reflected his values as stated during his campaign.

“Anyone who heard my platform during last year’s election cycle would have gleaned the phrase ‘living within one’s means’ and I stand by that,” King said.

As to who had prior information about Imker’s presentation, Learnard said “it is my understanding he also contacted the other council members and our city manager to review the details of his proposal. In any case, this is the fifth time I have been on council when Mr. Imker brought forth a long list of ideas so I have come to expect the unexpected.”

Ernst declined to elaborate on his views about the budget changes.

“The mil rate passed as it did and we will support it as a team and make this budget work,” was the only comment Ernst offered.

Imker offered responses on Tuesday in which he rejected any notion that anyone should have been surprised by the budget revisions he put forth. He said he made it clear at the first public hearing on the budget in mid-July that he would not support a millage rate increase.

“The city manager developed a proposed budget based on goals and objectives council identified.  He did exactly as instructed,” Imker said.  “A budget was developed to meet those targets and it required an additional 1 mill tax increase to achieve them.  All because he did this did not mean we were going to approve it.”

Imker suggested the direction given to staff earlier in the year was not in conflict with the priorities in his version of the budget.

“I hope everyone understands, this is program management 101.  All because we asked for everything didn’t mean we were prepared to actually go out and buy it,” Imker said.

As for who had prior knowledge of his budget plan, Imker said he’d been working with “senior staff” for months.

“This is something that just didn’t happen in the last week or so.  The city manager knew what I was doing for months.  He was copied on all my inquires with senior staff.  He may not have agreed with what I was going to propose but that’s not his job,” Imker said.

As to the particular changes he proposed, Imker said they were “really not that radical,” or hard to predict.

“Holding the line on salary and other such items are not earth shattering ideas.  I told every one of the major changes I was going to be making.  It wasn’t hard to figure out the alternative was going to be mostly roads, landscaping and salary. Anyone saying they didn’t know what was coming is not being frank.”