During the city’s budget workshop last week, Mayor Rick Lott suggested changing one sentence in the financial policy and increase a pocket of contingency funds to loosen the reigns on the city manager.
One sentence in the City of Plant City’s financial policies sparked a more than half-hour debate during the initial budget workshop last week when commissioners discussed the possibility of offering more power — and access to more money — to the city manager.
It all began when Mayor Rick Lott brought up an issue that he said had been on his mind toward the end of the first hour of the meeting. It wasn’t on the agenda, it wasn’t something they had planned to dive deeply into, but it was something he felt desperately needed to be addressed before they considered moving forward into the next fiscal year.
“Last year, we had a lot of large projects we had to get off the ground and this is the year they’re on the ground, we’re completing them,” Lott said. “Something the city manager talks a lot about is the deep dive, that’s his words, that’s not my words, that’s his words, it’s the ‘deep dive.’ And if you don’t mind, we have 50 minutes, we don’t need lunch or dinner or whatever it’s called. I really think if I look at this year, and I think we’ll call this budget this year the ‘deep dive budget.’ It’s not in words in here and so forth, but this is our CEO we have here and so, in conversation with our city manager, our CEO, we talk about the deep dive, we got into our working documents and one of the working documents is our financial policies. Every year we approve our budget, we get into our financial policies and I don’t know how he’s going to be able to accomplish his deep dive with one sentence in our financial policies, I’d like to discuss with you in a minute.”
Lott proposed they both reword page 35 in the city’s financial policy to allow City Manager Bill McDaniel to access the funds set aside for these types of issues and transfer them across departments within the general fund with ease and to increase the total funds available for his usage to $350,000. He also added the change would only be for one year, and then commissioners could reevaluate it and decide if they want to continue with the plan.
While Lott understood there are “silos” for a reason and certain funds cannot be used for unrelated issues and projects, he argued there must be a way to make the process simpler.
Every year, the city has $100,000 in its contingency fund. It’s only been touched once in four years, according to Lott, when Mike Herr was City Manager. It sits there mostly unused, but the policy in place does not allow the city manager to transfer funds from the special appropriations category. McDaniel can spend the money within that category but cannot transfer it to another fund.
“When you jump into a deep dive, you’ve got to be able to have the opportunity to make decisions, and to be able to have remedies, and to be able to have the opportunity to think out of the box a little bit because you’re diving into an area that you haven’t been to yet,” Lott said. “I think all of us here every month, we sit here and we praise our city manager and so forth, but to me if he’s going to be able to deep dive I think we have to arm him with the opportunity to sit here at this time next year and say, ‘I had a deep dive and this is what we accomplished and this is what we have to do next year.’”
McDaniel attributes his passion for a “deep dive” back to his original interview for the position approximately a year and a half ago, when he told the city “quite bluntly at the time” that as great as it may be, “this is an organization that’s built for the past.” He was determined then to build an organization for the future, which he believes is best done by thoroughly examining every aspect of the city. He watched, learned, assessed and, in his mind, figured out the strengths and weaknesses in the city and set the direction he thinks it needs to go in to succeed.
This is a concept that goes down to the bare bones of the organization, from the structure the city utilizes to its day-to-day operating methods. And when he sees something that needs improvement, he wants to be able to dig in and make it as effective as it needs to be for success. To do so, there are a lot of hoops and hurdles he has to clear.
Referencing issues that were unearthed over the past few months, McDaniel briefly explained the many steps and processes he had to go through to remedy them. Restructuring the city’s financial policies would help combat some of the issue by expediting the process.
The new wording of the sentence in question would become, “The city manger may transfer from the special appropriations category to any department within the general fund.” The contingency fund sits inside the special appropriations category, so if McDaniel is working in another department and sees a problem, he can pull from the funds and fix it.
If the issue at hand requires an RFP, procurement or any vote from commissioners, those policies must still to be followed. It just makes simple fixes something he can do at will.
The commissioners, however, had many questions about the proposed change. Commissioner Mary Mathis asked for specifics on where McDaniel actually needed the accessibility over the past year, then questioned Lott on why he thought it was necessary to increase the amount of funds in the pot for McDaniel to use.
Lott said they’ve always had that $100,000 available and while they rarely use it, the $250,000 “slush fund,” or the contingency fund, lets him use it on a rainy day. He stressed he sees value in the change and believes wholeheartedly in “arming the city manager” so they don’t have to push all of the smaller items into the next year’s budget.
Commissioner Bill Dodson also asked for clarification.
“The question you’re really raising is, ‘Is there a need for the city manager to have access to a $350,000 value of a fund that’s within this prerogative to source on a need basis without asking of the city commission if it’s a viable use of the money?” Dodson said. “Yet he would still report the spending of the money to whatever the amount is.”
For anything $50,000 and over, McDaniel would have to get commissioners’ approval. Anything $25,000 and over, he would have to report in a formal manner.
Dodson asked if a two-week delay — the approximate time it would take to get a topic before the city commission if McDaniel wanted to address an issue — had caused any problems in the past. McDaniel said he never understood the comment to really be about time, but rather about having a line item that could deal with unforeseen adjustments. Referencing the unknown once again, he said they would have no way of knowing what might come up throughout a fiscal year and that the change would merely help tackle the issue.
“If you don’t want to do this Commissioner Dodson I’m fine with it, OK?” Lott said. “I just can’t imagine myself being in the city’s manager’s shoes being asked to do a job — and I think he’s going to get it done no matter what because he’s a strong leader, an aggressive person, he’s determined, he has tenacity and I believe in him 100 percent — but my goal here was to arm him a little bit because I just believe if we gave him a little investment here, what could this guy do? OK?”
After a few more minutes of discussion, the commissioners decided to vote on going forward with the alteration that night so it would be ready for upcoming budget meetings. It was approved 4-1, with Dodson being the lone dissenter.