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Riverdale budget unable to skirt job cuts

By Justin Boron

The Riverdale City Council on Thursday night adopted a "bare bones" budget that city officials say shaved personnel and slashed operating costs to avoid dipping further into its investment accounts and burdening its citizens with a tax increase.

The $10.1 million dollar budget, which included the elimination of seven filled positions and four vacancies, was approved by three votes. The cuts bring the city employment down to 120.

Council member Rick Scoggins dissented in the budget approval, saying he received the budget without ample time to consider it.

Tom Pence, the city's finance director, provided a proposed budget at the council's work session, less than an hour before it came up for a vote. The budget also came only six hours before it took effect at midnight.

A set of staff reductions in the budget had fueled contention in a series of meetings earlier this month.

City firefighters, incensed at the prospect of losing two of their comrades, publicly criticized the reduction. The police department and public works also lost positions.

But the vitriol of the past month was absent from Thursday night's meeting as the City Council quietly took a vote with no vocal opposition from the public.

Before the vote, Fire Chief Billy Hayes apologized to the council for the heated exchanges that occurred between citizens and fire fighters in front of television cameras and reporters.

He said the "team oriented" nature of the department piqued the emotions of his staff.

"They're very passionate," Hayes said. " They're very upset that we're going to send some team members home."

Hayes also said the reduction in staff may put constraints on the department's capacity to handle the increasing number of calls. At the same time, he admitted the number of fires had gone down.

City Manager Iris Jessie said because of financial constraints, the staff cuts were unavoidable.

"Given the unstable nature of the economy, our stated priorities, and limits on what we can reasonably ask citizens to bear through increased taxes, it became clear that the city would need to reduce the size of its staff in order to achieve a balanced budget," Jessie says in a letter to the council members and citizens.

"Please be assured we recognize that 'positions' are actually 'people,' who are valued members of our organization."

After the vote, Jessie said the staff members whose positions had been deleted would remain employed until they are formally notified.

The need for fiscal discipline, Pence said, had been a long time coming in a city that had continually relied on its reserve accounts to balance the budget.

"This budget is probably the first balanced budget . . . that the city has presented in six years," he said.

In an analysis report of Riverdale's financial history presented as part of the budget, Pence cites a "lack of adequate financial management" and "uncontrolled growth of personnel costs" as reasons for exceeding revenues and forging the dependence on the city's investment accounts to even out its deficits.

Although a drab economy played a role in the budget, Jessie said the financial condition of the city isn't as gloomy as it seems, mentioning that Home Depot and the arrival of other large businesses in the future could be new sources of revenue.