SALISBURY — It’s been a busy week for the Salisbury city budget.
The Salisbury City Council passed its fiscal year 2012 operating budget with a 4-1 vote Monday night, just to have it vetoed by Mayor Jim Ireton the next day. The council responded immediately and overruled Ireton’s veto Wednesday afternoon, again with a 4-1 vote.
“The council has choices to make and they’re not always pleasant,” said Council President Terry Cohen. “The city budget is not unlimited…the city does not print money.”
The hectic week started with a hearing Monday night where the public was given a chance to weigh in on the budget. While over a dozen people spoke out, the majority of comments were directed at the council’s removal of $15,000 worth of funding for Urban Salisbury, cutting their budget from $50,000 to $35,000.
“We need you folks. We need your help,” Bill Ahtes, chairmen of Urban Salisbury, told the council.
Ahtes urged the council to reconsider the budget cuts it was putting upon Urban Salisbury. He warned that they would impact how effectively the agency can operate.
“We can’t do miracles with just a little bit of money,” he said.
According to Ahtes, Salisbury was already losing opportunities to bring in much needed businesses. He pointed out that the town of Berlin in neighboring Worcester County recently went to great lengths to encourage a microbrewery to set up shop in town, going so far as to amend local liquor laws. Ahtes encouraged the council to follow that example.
“They want business and they got it,” said Ahtes.
Several other members of Urban Salisbury added their voice to Ahtes’ argument.
Alan Hope, executive director of Urban Salisbury, asked the council not to micromanage the budget. Other members of the agency agreed, pointing out to the council that Urban Salisbury had decades more business experience between its members than the council had, and thus should be allowed to decide what line items they want to spend money on.
“We encourage the council to work with us, not against us,” said Hope.
A few residents in the audience brought up other concerns, including the need for streetlight replacement and questions about employee furlough days. The council’s budget did receive some support, though.
“I don’t see any fat in this budget,” said resident Kay Gibson, who added that she wished there was enough money to help Urban Salisbury, but didn’t think it was realistic.
After all of the arguments, the council voted to affirm the budget without changes, despite the large movement by Urban Salisbury.
“We’re starting to break the cycle of borrow and spend, borrow and spend,” said Council Vice President Deborah Campbell.
The only council member to vote against adopting the budget was Eugenie Shields.
“We need to be a compassionate council,” said Shields, who added that she was impressed with Ireton’s budget and worried that the council’s budget may be missing a few things.
Even with Shields against it, though, the council passed the budget easily.
However, it was vetoed within 24 hours by Ireton, who felt that the council was “turning its back” on everything from public employees to education to neighborhood conditions. He held a press conference at the corner of Batemen St. and Onley Rd., a symbolic gesture since the council had removed funding for intersection improvement at that spot from its budget.
Ireton had a number of other sticking points over the changes the council had made to his original budget. Among them was the cut to Urban Salisbury. He asserted that for every dollar spent on the organization, $1.80 came back to the city and that by not fully funding the agency, “we turn our back to progress.”
Some other problems he voiced over the approved budget were cuts to public access television and the council’s furlough policy. Though the council’s budget reduced the number of furlough days employees would have to take more than Ireton’s, he pointed out that the furlough reduction was uneven among pay grades. The lowest pay grades were able to have all furlough days eliminated and, while Ireton said he agreed with that, he worried that the system would pit employees against each other.
“I support furlough equity,” he said.
He called the council’s budgeting strategy “slash and run” and asserted that he had a very different philosophy.
“I am ‘yes’; the city council is ‘no,’” said Ireton.
Councilwoman Laura Mitchell attended the press conference and admitted that she still had reservations about the budget. “I feel very torn,” she said.
However, she stood by the council’s decision to adopt the changes it made. While Mitchell said there were things in the budget, such as lowering the sewer rate, that she wished had gotten more attention, other items like furlough day reduction sold her on the council’s version.
“Furloughs were my top priority,” said Mitchell, pointing out that Ireton’s budget would have meant less furlough days total, even if they were spread out evenly among pay grades.
The council responded to Ireton’s from-the-hip veto with equal speed. The day after his press conference the council met to discuss overruling the decision. With little discussion, a vote to cancel the veto was motioned and passed, again 4-1 with Shields voting against.
After the vote, Cohen reminded the assembly that if and when any issues with the budget come up, they can be addressed.
“The budget is amendable,” she said.
Ireton, who attended the special meeting, was calm and reserved, despite being so passionate about his veto the day before. He said that he respected the council’s right to make their decision, even if he didn’t agree with it and that everyone was seeing “the democratic process at work.”
“We’re going to be fine,” said Ireton.