CLINTON — Trying to recover from a disastrous year that saw the mayor resign under a cloud of alleged financial improprieties, town officials voted Dec. 30 to adopt budgets for the new year that they know they'll have to change later.
Failing to adopt budgets for 2020 before Jan. 1 would have meant the town only could have spent half of the monthly budgets adopted in 2019 until they agreed on new spending plans.
As a result, new Mayor Mark Kemp and the Board of Aldermen, which now includes appointed member Bart Blackledge, decided to adopt plans proposed by town accountant Tim Butler, although they have serious problems in some areas.
The motion to accept budgets for the general fund, utility fund and sales tax fund included "with the contingency they will be revised in the first quarter" of 2020.
"We're starting in a hole, and we've just got to dig our way out," Kemp said.
The utility fund reflects the reality that the town's water, sewer and gas systems are no longer money-making operations.
The utility fund budget, loosely based on 2019's revenues and expenses, shows a net loss of $110,657, with expected revenues of $736,084 but expenses of $846,741.
Butler pointed out that the main factor in the operating factor is a budgeted expense of $84,000 for a Zachary firm that was hired last year, at $7,000 per month, to get, and keep, the town's water system in compliance with state health regulations.
The state Office of Public Health slapped the town with an order requiring specific steps to bring the system into compliance, after then-Mayor Lori Ann Bell ignored requests to address problems with the water system.
One of the steps was hiring a certified water system operator, which the town met by hiring the Zachary firm.
Later in the year, the state pushed Clinton to merge its water system with East Feliciana Rural Water System Inc. and offered the cooperative financial incentives to accept the town's system.
Kemp circulated a draft merger agreement worked out by lawyers for the town and district. He said the agreement must be approved at the state level, with formal action by the town and district's board possible in late February or early March.
When the systems merge, the town's $7,000 per month payment to the Zachary water system operators will no longer be required, and the utility fund deficit will decrease, Butler noted.
The aldermen said they will look at adopting revised budgets after the merger is completed.
Other financial problems the budget proposals brought to light include:
- A sales tax fund dedicated by the voters to street and sidewalk maintenance may be supporting the salaries of employees who work in other areas of town government.
- General fund revenues have been propping up the utility fund, and a plan is needed to start repaying the amounts "borrowed."
- At the same time, the sales tax fund, meant for streets, has been paying general fund expenses.
- The town's Police Department cost almost four times as much as the department brought in from fines and forfeitures. Several aldermen said they want to work with Police Chief Ned Davis to cut the department's budgets.
- No money is budgeted for capital improvements or a rainy-day emergency fund, which Alderwoman Mary Dunaway said should be started with monthly $500 transfers.
Earlier in December, the board voted to meet during 2020 at 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month, rather than the third Tuesday, which had been the rule during most of 2019. The meetings will be held at the Clinton Volunteer Fire Department's station on Plank Road at least through June, the board decided.