Council Questions Budget

While they tentatively approved Mayor Ashton Hayward’s proposed budget, members of the Pensacola City Council still have some questions. During yesterday’s budget hearing, council members expressed concerns about the funding of outside agencies, the city’s new marketing contact and budgetary specifics of the Downtown Improvement Board.

In between yesterday’s public budget hearing and the Sept. 12 public hearing, the council will address these concerns during its Committee of the Whole meeting next week. In July, city council delayed its approval of the mayor’s budget until after these public hearings.

Several council members were particularly interested in the city’s new marketing contract with the Zimmerman Agency. The Tallahassee firm was recently brought on board to market the city—as well as Pensacola Energy and the Port of Pensacola—to the tune of $1.2 million for the first year.

“We have a huge expenditure with no controls in place,” said Councilwoman Maren DeWeese.

DeWeese said she had researched Zimmerman—“they talked about their bag of tricks, that they’re Houdinis”—and that the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce was already marketing the area. She said she couldn’t support the budget with the marketing contract included.

Chief Financial Officer Dick Barker informed the council that the Zimmerman contract had been signed. He described the effort as “a new way of handling it, to see if the efficiencies are there.”

Councilman John Jerralds wondered what the next step would be if the council rejected Zimmerman—“where would that leave us?”—and Councilwoman Sherri Myers asked that the issue be placed on the COW agenda. Councilwoman Megan Pratt said she thought there might be an out if the council didn’t provide money for the marketing contract.

Pratt also suggested that the city might consider reevaluating its budgetary priorities. She tied the marketing money to other obligations, such as pensions.

“If this budget is reflecting our priorities,” she said, “we prefer advertising the beach over pension reform.”

DeWeese motioned to pull the marketing dollars from the budget—a move Pratt called “a little drastic”—but later withdrew it when other council members 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.

Prior to taking a revote on the DIB budget—passing it unanimously—Councilman Brian Spencer, who is on the Downtown Improvement Board, called out the organization’s head, saying it was “unfortunate” that he wasn’t in attendance.

“I wish Kim Kimbrough, our executive director, was here,” Spencer said. “—I certainly hope this won’t happen again.”

The council members also spent some time yesterday discussing the mayor’s proposed $1 million Economic Development Incentive fund. There were discussions of the recent issues involving the purchase of a yacht by a former Okaloosa County tourism official.

“We own that one,” DeWeese said, expressing concern over controls on the fund. “And we may have a boat or a house and we can’t risk that.”

Pratt said she had spent “some time agonizing about that economic development fund.” She said criteria should be set for expenditures out of the fund.

“The lack of accountability disturbs me,” Pratt said.

Barker told the council that the fund would be filled with “all new revenue sources.” He reminded them that the city is planning to bankroll the Economic Development Fund with revenue generated from a not-yet-installed red light camera system, which is expected to fetch the city about a million dollars each year in traffic citations.

“These would be all new revenue sources that we have not had in the past and that we anticipate coming in,” Barker said, alluding to the red-light cameras. “These would be new traffic fines, not existing fines.”

Yesterday’s public hearing drew a thin crowd, with much of the gallery consisting of city staff. Council President Sam Hall and Councilman Larry B. Johnson were not in attendance at the hearing.

Following the council’s Monday afternoon COW meeting—during which it will address concerns raised yesterday—it will have another public hearing on the budget. That second public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 12 at 5:15 p.m.