Oak Grove City Council approved the Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget at Tuesday night’s meeting, despite one council member reiterating their concern with approving it without enough time for a thorough review.

Following the second reading of the budget Tuesday, Mayor Theresa Jarvis gave a summary of the changes made to this year’s budget compared to the last and other important points on this year’s budget.

Those included no new taxes, fees or fines for the citizens of Oak Grove, 1.5% cost of living adjustment increase for city employees, no new debt for the city, over $800,000 in capital expenditures for public safety and road improvements.

Last week, the council held a special called meeting to review and approve the first reading of the budget, however, the council asked for several changes.

Those previous requests included funding improvements to Walter Garrett Lane, adding compensation per run for volunteer firefighters as well as eliminating the firefighters’ water bill forgiveness and having a paid fire chief.

At a previous meeting, council members said they had been receiving messages from citizens stating that vehicles have been getting stuck on Walter Garrett or damaged due to the holes and water drainage problems.

Farmers have also complained about having to drive their equipment on the road and council members considered the road to be dangerous and stated that it needed to be addressed.

The council shared that in previous years, the city paid roughly $90,000 to have gravel laid on Walter Garrett Lane three times a year.

The council suggested using the money left in the stormwater fee fund that the city needs to spend on Hugh Hunter Road, since a portion of that project would be improving drainage.

The city’s municipal road aid fund was slated to be used to till and pave Hugh Hunter.

The council suggested using the funds from the road aid fund for Walter Garrett instead of Hugh Hunter.

Council member Janet Edwards suggested using the stormwater fund to help fund the project and using a portion of the road aid fund that would have been used on improving drainage on Hugh Hunter, and instead using it all to improve Walter Garrett.

During the first reading of the budget, those suggestions were not included in the budget and the council asked that the budget be amended to reflect that idea. It was included in the second reading of the budget.

While the council discussed adding compensation per run for volunteer firefighters as well as eliminating the firefighters’ water bill forgiveness at its previous meeting, the budget will not include those changes as City Attorney Mark Gilbert is still researching legality issues regarding those ideas prior to adding those amendments.

Instead, the council plans on coming back to the idea after they’ve received the completed compensation plan and Gilbert finishes his research.

At a previous meeting, the council discussed using the former Emergency Services Director salary of roughly $80,000 to go toward a paid fire chief position in the fire department. The council agreed during that meeting.

However, at the meeting last week, Edwards said that she thought the council had to vote on adding a part-time fire chief position. Jarvis shared that the council only has to vote to approve new positions if they are full-time.

Also at the last meeting, Council member James McKnight requested that the budget be amended to include a 2.3% payroll increase for council members to be on par with similarly sized cities’.

The council shared that the increase in payroll would not affect current council members. City Attorney Mark Gilbert added that the pay raise wouldn’t go into effect for council until 2022.

The council agreed, however, Gilbert shared that the raise would have to be voted on by May on the year that the election takes place. The council agreed and voted to approve the decision unanimously.

The council ultimately approved the budget with a five to one vote, with Council member Kisha Mische-Jeffrey being the only no vote.

Despite those changes being included in the second reading of the budget, Jeffrey reiterated why she was against voting to approve the budget as she felt that the council did not have adequate time to thoroughly review the budget and that the council was not well prepared to vote on it.

“We’ve had two readings (on this budget) now and at both readings we’ve had questions about something in this budget that we’re passing,” Jeffrey said. “Both times we’ve had questions that needed to be answered and I think that is a signal that we did not invest enough time in preparing this budget.”

Although Edwards voted to approve the budget, she agreed with Jeffrey that the council will still need to thoroughly review the budget and make several amendments moving forward, especially after the council receives the final compensation plan, which would include the city’s job descriptions.

“I don’t want several months to go by before we look at this again. I think it needs to be something that we’re keeping on the forefront and is something that I think we need to monitor a little bit closely on a monthly basis,” Edwards said.

“I think we need to come back to it as a committee of the whole and go over the budget more thoroughly than we have in the past.”

In other council business, the council discussed having open meetings to allow public input.

Jarvis shared with the council that she has been working with the Oak Grove Community Center Director Melissa Lynch to hold future meetings at the community center’s gym in order to allow the public to attend, while staying socially distanced and adhering to the governor’s COVID-19 guidelines.

The council also discussed requiring masks at the meetings if the public were to attend and for the city’s IT department to acquire microphones for the council members to use not only at these meetings but also to help those watching the Facebook Live meetings hear council members better.

Edwards requested that those issues be squared away prior to the next council meeting in order for those to be included and allow Oak Grove residents to attend and give their input at the meetings.

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