published Thursday, July 25th, 2013

East Ridge avoids budget pitfall

Right before the East Ridge City Council voted about whether to amend the previous fiscal year’s budget after the fact, they learned they couldn’t do that. The tweak is against the law.

City Attorney Hal North told the councilmen Thursday night that he spoke with the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office earlier this week. North asked whether the city could change its budget after the year to make up for the fact that the city spent too much money in certain areas.

North was told no, you can’t do that.

“We’re making a big mistake if we amend the budget after the fact,” he said. “That raises all kinds of red flags with the comptroller’s office. He absolutely made it clear to me that’s not what we’re supposed to do.”

So, with that knowledge, the Council voted 3-0 to reject Ordinance No. 945. Mayor Brent Lambert and Councilman Larry Sewell abstained from voting. They said they couldn’t process North’s information Thursday night. They wished they had more time to think about it.

“This information would have been very helpful 24 hours ago,” Lambert told North. “We could have done something, had at least time to think about what’s going on. Obviously I appreciate you all investigating and finding out this information. Obviously, that’s very helpful. But if you knew about it a couple days ago, I feel like I should have been informed. I feel like the Council should have been informed.”

This last fiscal year, which ended June 30, East Ridge spent $55,000 more than it budgeted in city attorney fees — in part because of a $22,000 severance package for former City Attorney John Anderson.

The city also spent $64,640 more than it expected on the Community Center, and Finance Manager Diane Qualls said that’s because city officials did not know how much money it would need to spend on a soccer league. The mistake won’t happen next year, she said.

Going forward, North said, the city must alter its budget each month if needed, not after the year ends.

All five councilmen voted to approve the ordinance during a June 27 meeting, but they needed to vote on it twice before passing it. The Council discussed the ordinance a second time on July 11, but Councilman Marc Gravitt asked to table a vote so they could look into the potential budget amendments a little more.

Before voting on the ordinance the first time, interim City Manager Eddie Phillips told the council that the Comptroller’s Office requires cities to make these after-the-fact adjustments.

“The city of East Ridge has done this many times,” Phillips said Thursday.

But actually, North said, the Comptroller’s Office discourages such a change, one that could force certain government officials to leave office. That won’t happen this year, but if the city continues this practice, the threat still looms.

City Manager interviews: The Council will interview its three manager candidates on Aug. 8 after its regular meeting. The candidates are: Hamilton County Magistrate Larry Ables; Fairview, Tenn., City Manager Andrew Hyatt; and Hattiesburg, Miss., Director of Federal and State Progress Andrew Ellard.

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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