Mayor wrongly blames city manager for Mount Carmel's $800K budget deficit

Jeff Bobo • Apr 25, 2018 at 10:00 PM

MOUNT CARMEL — On Tuesday evening, Mayor Chris Jones blamed City Manager Mike Housewright for the town’s current 2018-19 budget draft that is $800,000 in the red, but in reality that deficit can be traced directly to BMA decisions that preceded Housewright’s arrival.

Jones’ motion to fire Housewright Tuesday was defeated 2-2 with one abstention and was met with an extremely vocal outcry of opposition among the local residents who attended the meeting.

Jones and Alderman Margaret Christian voted yes, Vice Mayor Carl Wolfe and Alderman Jennifer Williams voted no, and newly appointed Alderman Garrett White abstained.

Housewright was approved last November to be Mount Carmel’s first city manager in nearly 20 years.

In making his motion to fire Housewright, Jones pointed to a draft of the proposed budget which was recently presented to the BMA. That spending plan is $800,000 in the red.

Why is the proposed budget $800K  in the red?

Last year the BMA approved a 2017-18 budget that was $500,000 in the red and used savings to balance that budget.

That $500,000 revenue deficit has carried over to the proposed 2018-19 budget.

The current budget also factored in revenue from an AEP franchise fee that would likely have resulted in an increase in local electric bills by 5 percent.

Despite the fact that the BMA approved that revenue in the budget, that franchise fee was rejected in August by the BMA by a vote of 5-2, costing the city another $175,000 that is carrying over to the 2018-19 fiscal year. Williams and Diane Adams voted against eliminating the fee.

City Recorder Marian Sandidge said the remaining $125,000 of that $800,000 deficit can be attributed to typical cost of living increases, employee health insurance increases and an increase in administration salaries attributed partly to the addition of Housewright’s salary.

Another excuse Jones gave for wanting to fire Housewright was the salary he offered new fire chief Austin Simpson. That salary is budgeted at $32,760 in the proposed 2018-19 spending plan, which is less than the $49,810 budgeted for the fire chief in the current fiscal year.

“We could have got the man a lot cheaper, and it went over $20 an hour as a part-time position,” Jones said.

Mount Carmel is currently projected to end the 2017-18 fiscal year with approximately $3 million in savings. 

Tuesday’s debate over firing the city manager

Jones: “It is a city manager’s job to work with its board members, to work with its mayor. (Outburst from audience) We’ve got a lot of cutting to do. I’m not sure if this town is ready for a city administrator. (Outburst from audience) This has come up the last two meetings. I’m not happy with the city administrator we have right now.”

Williams: “I don’t see how you can blame him for a budget that he did not create, that he walked into, and for debt that we incurred ourselves as a city before he was ever hired.”

Jones: “We’ve have had nothing but turmoil since we hired a city manager, and I don’t know why.”

Willliams: “I can tell you why. Because you want him out.”

Alderman Margaret Christian identified one of her reasons for supporting Housewright’s termination as the BMA’s inability to hold an evaluation on him last month due to the disruptive audience in attendance.

Mrs. Christian: “It has been a constant uproar since Mr. Housewright has taken the helm. I’m very disappointed. I was hoping and praying that we could help him — with our help — to move forward with this town. It does not look to me like we’re ever going to be able to achieve that.”

Williams: “I don’t think the board has given him a chance. We still have a problem on this board of people wanting control, and want to say what goes and what doesn’t go. We are blaming him for things that he did not cause.”

Housewright responds

Prior to the vote, Housewright made a statement, during which he discussed “the elephant in the room” — his reasoning for demoting interim police chief George Copas — which he believes to be the real reason Jones wants him fired.

Housewright: “Since that time, I have been consistently accused of playing politics and listening to the wrong people. I have maintained that my reasons for the personnel change were numerous, and I have done my best to keep personnel matters off the board level, out from in front of the press and keep controversy off the board level.”

Housewright accused Copas of abusing the city’s sick time and vacation buyback policy, which resulted in Copas being paid while missing about two months on sick time per year, amounting to a total of $40,000 in sick pay over the past six years. At the same time, Copas sold his vacation back to the town, Housewright alleged.

Housewright: “These (vacation buyback and sick time) policies encourage poor attendance, and they give the biggest reward to the worst performing of our staff. The most egregious and deliberate misuse of this policy so far has been Mr. Copas.

“This is only one example of my justification for making the change, and this is the change that continually threatens my job.”

Housewright said Jones told him last month the only way to save his job was to reinstate Copas as police chief.

Housewright: “Since I’ve been here, I’ve been lied to, and I’ve been lied about before I ever walked through the door. People have been told I’ve been having secret meetings with former mayors, I’ve been accused of pre-selecting the next fire chief and police chief. People were told that I hated animals and I was going to close down the animal control department. People were told that I destroyed the Town of Unicoi Police Department. The Town of Unicoi has never had a police department.”

After the vote to fire Housewright failed, Jones told him to come to the May 10 budget workshop with ideas for reducing the pending 2018-19 budget deficit.

Hiring a new police chief

Upon hiring Housewright as city manager, the BMA changed its form of government to give the city manager the power to hire, fire and discipline employees.

On Tuesday, Alderman Margaret Christian suggested suspending Housewright’s authority for the hiring of a new police chief to replace Jeff Jackson, who retires at the end of June.

“Since the board is the city manager’s supervisor and he answers to the BMA, I am respectfully requesting that the BMA be a part of the interview process for the new chief of police, and let the BMA vote for who it feels is a better fit for our citizens,” Christian said. “It is important that our citizens feel safe, and as their elected officials it is our job to maintain this. ... This board knows our town, and is elected, and we know our citizens as well. It is very important to our well-being, safety and security that we hire a chief who will fit well with our community.”

Alderman Jennifer Williams said keeping politics out of hiring and firing was the reason the ordinance was approved.

Christian: “Are you comfortable letting a person who does not know our citizens to go ahead and get someone in here, and it doesn’t fit?”

Williams: “I’m comfortable with following what we passed. All of us voted yes to this (ordinance) twice.”

City Attorney John Pevy explained that the only way the BMA can remove Housewright’s power to hire the police chief is by changing the ordinance that gave him the power to hire and fire all city employees. That would require two readings of a new ordinance.

No other action was taken on that issue.

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