Huntington Council Narrowly Votes to Lower Spending Limit to $7,500

by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter

HUNTINGTON, WV (HNN) – By the narrowest of margins, 6-5, Huntington City Council voted to chop in half the purchase threshold for city departments. Council had previously increased from $5,000 to $15,000 as the level over which the expenditure must gain council approval. Now, it’s $7,500.

Previously, the Huntington Police Department and Huntington Fire Department had both illustrated that lower the limit would/could delay purchases. Both of the chiefs had concerns about the approximately one to two month time frame necessary for two readings of an ordinance, putting the item out for bid, referral to one or more committees, and, finally, a vote of council.

The purchasing limit issue peaked after Mayor Kim Wolfe bought one salt scraper after council turned down the purchase of two of them. The ‘on record’ procedure has the Mayor approaching at least three council members concerning whether he could reduce the purchase to ONE without the need of a council vote.

Complicating the issue, the City has been under a non-essential spending freeze and a hiring freeze. To save funds, City Hall is closed on Fridays and many workers have a less than 40 hour week.

Finance Committee Chairman Steve Williams told council this is the “fourth time” that the committee has reviewed the spending threshold proposal.

Williams had previously admitted to other council members that it was his opinion that the administration could purchase one scraper without necessitating additional council approval or presenting a disrespectful attitude towards council’s vote on two spreaders.

The Administration brought the $12,000 spreader which went into use in time for the January 14, 2011 weekend snow storm. Wolfe labeled the item as an “emergency” purchase.

Prior to the vote, Williams attempted to present what he termed a “compromise.” Under the proposal , the purchase limit would have stayed at $15,000 but all purchases over $7,500 would be reported to council members in a timely manner.

Actually, though, the committee referral had been an ordinance with a $7,500 limit. That had not been recommended by the Finance Committee.

When Williams attempted to make the amendment, Councilman Scott Caserta called a point of order --- council had voted down this same compromise at the last meeting.

City Attorney Scott McClure agreed. Procedurally, the proposed amendment would be a Motion to Reconsider requiring movement to the floor by a member of the previously prevailing motion. No one moved to place the Williams backed amendment before the full council. Thus, the vote would be on the Jim Ritter ordinance that required council approval for purchases exceeding $7,500.

Stating the Finance Committee had “muddied the waters,” sponsor Jim Ritter cautioned that “people watch what we do.” He then repeated that “council had been worried about this fiscal year,” which recalled the numerous limitations placed on the city’s operations in anticipation of a revenue short-fall due to the recession. “This body has responsibility for the budget,” Ritter stressed.

Councilman Scott Caserta supported Ritter adding, “We’re just not willing to loosen the reins as we were last year.” He prefaced that statement with a comment that “the majority of council” does not “right now have confidence” in the Administration concerning the higher limit.

Council members Rebecca Thacker, Russ Houck, Jim Insco and Teresa Loudermilk joined Ritter and Caserta in voting for the reduction.

However, director of finance & administration, Brandi Jacobs Jones stressed the Wolfe Administration had not violated the previous policy. She argued that the lower limit would impede day to day city operations.

FREE SPEECH AT GOOD & WELFARE

A proposition to return the ‘open mike’ portion of the council meeting --- named Good and Welfare --- back to earlier in sessions brought a strong response from one of the city’s most outspoken activists, Tom McCallister.

The move would allow citizens and others with not on the agenda presentations to speak following the “Reports of the Mayor” segment.

Mcallister took issue with that portion of the ordinance which prevents discussion of agenda items during the segment. He called this a free speech violation. Although no citizen comment can occur on First Reading, a debate has ensued concerning the availability of public input during the council committee meetings.

The ordinance, which passed unanimously, also allows each speaker five minutes (up from the current three). However, the three minute rule has a caveat --- a person’s time can be extended if one council member asks for a rule waiver.

In addition, McCallister hinted that he might “try for a thrill” by running for council in 2012.

POLICE AND FIRE GRANTS

Council heard first reading of a fully subsidized COPS grant to purchase electronics for field reporting and filing of incident reports from the officers laptops contained in their cruiser. Second reading will be next for this purchase since a committee referral did not occur.

However, the finance committee and public safety committee will be looking at two grant applications by the Huntington Fire Department.

One of the grants would fund ten new fire fighters for two years , but in the third year (and thereafter) the city would be responsible for the approximate $515,196 annual cost.

The second Fire Department grant is for the purchase of a combination fire truck and rescue apparatus. It costs about $450,000 and would be housed at Station #10 at Washington Boulevard. The location places the rescue equipment near Interstate 64 and U.S. 60.

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