By Frank Lewis
November 15, 2013
PDT Staff Writer
Make no mistake about it, if new City Manager Derek Allen has his way, the city will live within its budget.
At Thursday night’s Portsmouth City Council meeting the man who takes over as the city’s chief executive in January told Council, “I believe one of the reasons I was selected and hired was to bring the city’s finances somewhat under control and to deal with some of the other issues that were discussed here tonight. And I just wanted to reinforce that we’ll be passing a budget, and in the future we will live with that budget.”
City Council had several discussions concerning allocating appropriations that had not been first accounted for as to availability in the general fund. First Ward Councilman Kevin W. Johnson had brought up adding to each appropriation ordinance a reference that the City Auditor had verified the funds were available. City Solicitor John Haas began the meeting by giving the reasons why that should not be done. Eventually Council removed that line from one of the ordinances, with Johnson promising to, on his own, ask the Auditor about the availability of funds before every appropriation ordinance.
“I think some of the concerns have been about spending money that we didn’t have, at least that weren’t appropriated,” Allen said. “And it is my intention to communicate with Council and to let you know where we are with these things. We will be passing budgets and we will have to live with these budgets, one way or another. Some concerns about including the language about having the Auditor certify the funds, of that concern is going to take care of itself starting the beginning of the year when I come on board.”
The Council discussion partially centered around going out and getting something like a work shovel. The city had been dinged for things being bought before obtaining a purchase order. Allen said there will have to be a way in which he and present City Auditor Trent Williams can work together to find a solution to that issue.
“It is a hindrance to the daily operation to get permission before you go buy something small like a shovel,” Allen said. “There’s ways to deal with that, and we will come up with a way to make sure that there has been prior approval before anybody from my departments purchases something.”
Another discussion centered around the possible allocation of $300,000 for Phase 1 of preparing the former Adelphia building for use by the City Waterworks Department. Council brought up the fact that there are reportedly two other components of that project. Phase 2 and the total costs that are unknown. Council gave the ordinance a first reading despite Kevin W. Johnson’s move to table it to give Allen the opportunity to review it. The vote to table the ordinance failed because of a 3-3 vote.
“I just want to reassure everybody I am not against the Adelphia building project,” Allen said. “My concern was, I just wanted to make sure that everything has been looked at because once that project gets started, if the costs escalate, I’ll probably be the one that gets blamed - not you, mayor, and not (City Waterworks Director) Sam (Sutherland). That’s why I just wanted to be able to review the project and make sure that we have a comprehensive evaluation of everything.”
Allen also clarified another issue.
“I also want to state for the record that I’m not opposed to the employee pay increases for the non-union (workers),” Allen said. “I just wanted to see the financial analysis that shows that the total cost of this and the trade-off on the insurance. I think the insurance has to be a total comprehensive package and we haven’t seen that yet.”
Allen said he supports the efforts by the City Health Department to become a health clinic for city employees, which would provide free health care and would save the city health insurance dollars. The city’s health insurance fund currently stands some $900,000 in the red, and premiums are set to go up in 2014.
“I think that is going to be a component of getting the health care costs under control,” Allen said. “So I look forward to working with all of you, and I’m excited about what lies ahead for the city of Portsmouth in the future and I firmly believe that we will get things turned around.”
Allen made a positive impression Thursday evening.
“I like how he thinks,” Kevin W. Johnson told the Daily Times Friday. “He’s going to be not only a task manager, but a good manager of our resources. And when I say resources, not just dollars and cents, but how we use our people; how we use our time and how we focus. Believe me, I am looking forward to him coming on board.”
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 252, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking news, follow Frank on Twitter @FrankLewisPDT.