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Riverdale budget process reveals council tensions

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Tempers flared Monday at Riverdale City Hall during a special called meeting to approve the fiscal 2010 budget.

The budget passed by a vote of 2-0-0 (with councilmen Rick Scoggins and Wayne Hall abstaining) amid council members accusing unnamed others of abuse of power, financial mismanagement, and graft.

At the center of the debate was the elimination of six employees in the city's Roadways and Walkways Maintenance Division. With the approval of the budget, the six employees - some with more than 10 years of experience - were terminated, saving the city $340,809 in salaries and benefits.

Riverdale City Manager Iris Jessie said the recommendation to eliminate the six positions was not made lightly. "We made cutbacks, generally, across the board," Jessie said. "There's still so many uncertainties about 2011. The state is talking about additional budget cuts ... we just have to be proactive and stay ahead of any financial calamities.

"Anytime you have to deal with making changes to somebody's livelihood, it is always a difficult decision," she said. "The people in that division, their workload had gone down 80 percent with the sale of the water system and with the initiation of the storm water utility by [the] Clayton County [Water Authority]. We had to look at every division to look at those areas that make good business sense."

Total revenues expected in the fiscal 2010 budget are just over $11 million, about $688,000 more than last year's budget of $10.4 million. Jessie credited conservative spending and additional property taxes coming in from new businesses along Ga. Highway 85 as contributing to the increase. The new budget also calls for no tax increases or employee furloughs.

Carlos Torres, an employee of the Roadways and Walkways Maintenance Division for 11 years, joined other division employees on Monday night, who argued for their jobs. According to city records, Torres and the other five employees in the department make approximately $44,000 a year in salary and benefits, each.

"We, the employees, are still doing the same services we were hired to do," Torres said. "We don't just cut grass. We pick up dead animals. We trim bushes. If a tree falls on the road, we take care of it. We care for the city."

Councilmember Wanda Wallace, who voted in favor of the budget along with Councilmember Kenny Ruffin, said the work of the department no longer exists. She said she believes the work of the division can be done less expensively through private contractors and inmate labor.

"Right now, some of those employees are making $18 an hour and they are just cutting grass," Wallace said. "There is landscaping that the employees don't know how to do. There is roadwork that doesn't need to be done anymore, because it has to be contracted out to Clayton County. When people are making $18-plus an hour with less work to do, I don't think it's fair to the taxpayer."

Scoggins accused councilmembers Kenny Ruffin and Wanda Wallace, who both voted in favor of the budget, of "taking food out of the mouths of families."

"There is no reason to remove these employees," Scoggins said. "If we are in the black, if we are on top of our game, why are we letting go of our employees?" he asked.

Scoggins went on to accuse department heads and city officials of putting self-interest before the interests of employees. "I know plenty of crooked council members," he said. "There is more than one way to give yourself a raise other than putting it in your salary.

Hall took a similar stance, renewing calls he has made in the past for a forensic audit of the city's finances. "There's an organizational problem, plain and simple," Hall said. "A certain faction has created departments and divisions. In these meetings, there has been a lot of convulsions going on. I would like to call for a forensic audit of this government."

The fiscal 2010 budget was approved with no tax increases. In approving the budget, Ruffin said he is looking out for the taxpayers, who he believes "are on top of the food chain. We have to recognize that these are tough economic times for everybody," he said.

"The county is going to raise their taxes and the school system is raising it slightly," he said. "Some people can absorb that, but I'm trying to look out for the people who can't."