City Budget Process sets stage for final public hearing

The clock is ticking for the Pensacola City Council’s approval of the 2012-13 budget. Tonight is the second budget hearing. Here is the history of this year’s process using the notes of our reporter Jeremy Morrison:

June 11 Mayor delivers budget to council
Mayor Ashton Hayward delivered the budget to the council on June 11. His $221 million proposed budget came in $600,000 below the previous year’s budget. It called for a reduction of full-time employees from 860 to 830, and reduced the number of department heads from 17 to 11.

The mayor presented a number of ideas, including: establishing a $1 million economic development incentive fund to be used to market surplus properties and offer incentives to growing businesses and new ventures; creating a voluntary annexation program to encourage population growth; updating the master plan for the Pensacola International Airport; installing infrastructure at the Port of Pensacola to allow docked vessels to run on land-based power instead of diesel engines; capitalizing on the city’s natural gas asset.

July 23, 25 Council holds special meetings on budget
The Pensacola City Council chose after two days of deliberations to table the budget.

The council first voted to hold up the mayor’s office’s budget, waiting until a council executive was hired and further discussions on the matter were held. After that motion failed, they unsuccessfully attempted to cut Hayward’s numbers by $400,000. Chief of Staff John Asmar was a point of contention, but nothing was done about his position with the mayor’s office.

Council members said that they would like to hear presentations from outside agencies that receive city funding before approving those dollars. They also had overall concerns regarding the city’s new marketing contract with the Zimmerman Agency.

Sept 5 First public hearing on the budget
While there were few comments from the public and even fewer members in the audience, the council took another crack at the budget that they received nearly three months ago. Council members expressed concerns about the funding of outside agencies, the city’s new marketing contact and budgetary specifics of the Downtown Improvement Board.

A motion was made to pull the marketing dollars intended for Zimmerman from the budget but it was withdrawn when the council agreed to take up the issue during the COW meeting.

The issue of the DIB budget nearly derailed yesterday’s hearing. The council didn’t have the votes to pass the DIB budget, due to the fact that no representative from the board was present to answer their questions. If the council failed to pass any one of the five resolutions it was tending to during the meeting—one of which was the DIB budget—the hearing would have been suspended until the next scheduled hearing. After learning this, the council decided to tentatively pass on the issue and also put it on the COW agenda for further discussion.

Sept 10 Council Committee of the Whole Meeting
The city council heard from both the DIB and the Zimmerman Agency and some members took another swipe at the mayor’s Chief of Staff, John Asmar.

While Councilman Brian Spencer described the firm’s presentation as “enlightening,” others on the board were less complimentary. Jerralds was “deeply insulted,” Councilwoman Sherri Myers was “offended” and Councilman Larry B. Johnson found the agency’s efforts thus far “disappointing to me.” Council members objected to Mayor Hayward’s mug being used to promote the city. They questioned the firm’s involvement in the TDC scandals in Okaloosa County (which, BTW, the state attorney found no wrongdoing by the ad agency).

Asmar continued to be the lightning rod for some of the council members, particularly Larry B. Johnson, Jr. The councilman claimed to have evidence that Asmar had conflicts of interest in working for the city and CRA–something, if true, could possibly get him disbarred as an attorney if Asmar didn’t disclose them to mayor. The majority of the council didn’t want to touch it, especially after Johnson refused to share his evidence with them. Sherri Myers suggested the council address the issue within the city budget.

“We can always, through the budget, defund that position,” she said.

So this is where the Pensacola budget process stands. After three months and a day, the public weighs in one more time tonight and the Pensacola City Council can pass, fail, table or amend it. Right now the issues for the city council appear to be Zimmerman, DIB and the Chief of Staff, but they aren’t limited to those items.

The Pensacola City Council has until Oct 9 to approve a balanced budget. If it doesn’t, then a continuing resolution must be passed every 30 days.