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Budget timeline sparks heated debate on Steubenville City Council

STEUBENVILLE — It doesn’t matter how early they start working on the 2021 budget, Finance Director Dave Lewis told Steubenville City Council Tuesday there’s no way to avoid them having to pass it as emergency legislation.

Lewis said final revenues and expenses from the current budget wont be reported until early December, and they need to close out the 2020 budget to finalize the 2021 spending plan.

But bringing legislation in for three readings is a 30-day process, he said. The budget, however, has to be in place by Jan. 1 and council traditionally takes the last two weeks of the year off for the Christmas holiday.

“We don’t have time,” Lewis said after the meeting, calling it “one of the more complicated budgets we’ve worked on.”

Second Ward Councilman Craig Petrella said he wants to be able to “veto any line item, not have it stuffed down my throat like last year.”

“I will not vote for any budget that has an emergency clause in it,” Petrella said. “We have plenty of time, we can always adjust it at the 11th hour. I want it on record that I will not vote on anything (that’s not brought) in a timely manner.

“Three months away and you tell me we can’t vote on it as an emergency?” 5th Councilman Willie Paul, chair of council’s finance committee, said.

“You know this is going to be a difficult budget year and you’re still going to complain that it’s an emergency?”

Paul said they started the budget process three months early “in order for all of council to have a firm understanding of what lies ahead for the city’s finances.”

“We don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “We have to adapt to any and all situations that we are dealt. With all the facts and figures that are presented to council…after three months of haggling we should be able to pass the budget on an emergency basis.”

Paul said pandemic aftershocks are going to impact the budget for the remainder of 2020, “so we could have something ready and just that quick, all the budget planning could be for naught.”

Law Director Costa Mastros told council they need a majority vote, not a unanimous vote to adopt a budget.

“I just wanted to be sure,” 3rd Ward Councilman Eric Timmons said. “So everyone can vote the way they want.”

Lewis said there’s no way to speed up the budget closeout process.

“Capital projects are funded by state grants and loans, that money is drawn as we go along,” he said. “We don’t have a whole lot of control over how that money comes in and we have to pin down very precisely where that money (goes in the budget).

“We’re not trying to delay passing the budget. The problem is we don’t have the data until early December.”

Fourth Ward Councilman Scott Dressel pointed out that having the ordinance read three successive weeks “doesn’t change anything, it’s the same reading all three times.”

“It’s a timing issue, not a content issue,” he said.

Lewis said the budget will be conservative: they’re going to hold off filling as many vacant positions as they can, continue to watch expenses and hold the line on “inflation adjustments” to salaries “until we see the effect of COVID-19 on city finances, then we can re-evaluate it.” That likely won’t be until around mid-year.

“We’re hoping to get into 2021 before any decisions are made,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what happens (first).”

City Manager Jim Mavromatis said they just wrapped up negotiations with AFSCME employees.

“I’m waiting for the final draft to present it to (council). There’s no raises the first year, but there is an opener to come back in when we see where we’re at financially,” he said.

During the initial round of budget hearings, council reviewed spending worksheets for the mayor, city manager, law director, council, finance, utility billing and police.

Mavromatis told 1st Ward Councilwoman Asantewa Anyabwile equipping police with body cams will cost $200,000, an expense they can’t take on this year unless the auditor determines it qualifies for CARES Act funding.

“We’re waiting on a ruling,” he said. “If they don’t feel it’s justified, you’re talking $200,000 that we don’t have right now.”

During their regular meeting, council reappointed Tom Timmons and Tom Wilson to the Board of Zoning Appeals, and John Barnes to the Fair Housing Commission.

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