During the late-spring budget season, local government officials debate spending and property taxes — but fiscal emotion already is running high in Mount Airy, including a verbal exchange between a citizen and City Manager Barbara Jones.
Paul Eich, a former mayoral candidate who regularly monitors city government affairs, questioned the honesty of budget preparations by Jones after venturing to a podium during the public forum at Thursday night’s meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
Eich’s response brought a sharp response from the city manager.
“I don’t appreciate your attacking my integrity,” Jones told Eich immediately after he concluded his remarks. That response was an apparent violation of council protocol governing verbal sparring being citizens and city officials during the public forums.
Those sessions are conducted near the start of every commissioners meeting, with local residents invited to speak on any city government topic. Eich chose Mount Airy’s budget as the subject for his remarks Thursday night leveled toward the city manager, which were punctuated by his use of a little-known word: mendacity.
Mendacity, popularized in the classic 1950s movie “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, is defined as a lack of honesty — “not full-out lies,” Eich said, but “not full transparency.”
The local citizen explained that his use of the term stems from his attendance at a multi-day city government planning retreat held recently, which included Jones debating commissioners over the pay of police officers and other budgetary matters.
“Mendacity is the word that sticks in my mind after that meeting,” Eich said.
He charged that Jones has seemed reluctant to implement a directive from the majority of the commissioners that the next (2017-2018) fiscal year budget be capped at $12 million — while also including higher pay for city police.
During his public forum remarks, Eich further questioned Jones’ past role in preparing municipal budgets. He indicated that those spending packages over the past five years have reflected an alleged dire need requiring the use of city reserve funds to balance the budget.
Yet the city has managed to add to that reserve, or fund balance, instead, which as of the end of the last fiscal year on June 30, 2016, exceeded $11.6 million.
The same scenario, of a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, is now forecast for the end of this fiscal year in June, according to Eich.
“But how has the city done in the last five years?” he continued, citing combined budget deficit projections over that period which have exceeded $11 million.
In the final analysis, Eich said the municipality has added more than $2 million to its “savings account” over that five-year period.
“Yes, fellow citizens,” he said from the podium, “combined over the most recent five years this deficit projected was off by more than $13 million.”
Eich then repeated the M-word, reading from his prepared remarks.
“Mendacity — let me repeat — for the last five years the numbers given at this time of the (year) were wrong by year end in June by an average of $2.7 million each year. Mendacity!”
Eich, who in the past has advocated that any such savings be passed on to citizens, including through a property tax cut, said the city manager is eyeing another $4 million deficit for the next fiscal year.
“It is time to stop this mendacity in budget projections.”
Jones defends stance
After Eich spoke, the city manager responded to him as he made his way to the city clerk to deliver a copy of his remarks to be recorded in the meeting minutes.
Jones said she normally does not respond to comments by citizens during public forums, but was compelled to do so after Eich spoke.
“Please don’t question my honesty,” the city manager told him.
When he then tried to say something, Jones said, “I’m not going to respond further.”
In brief comments while clarifying her position, the city manager said she understood instructions from the commissioners to present a budget not exceeding $12 million which includes no tax hike and also the police pay raises. Jones said she also supports increases for other municipal workers.
The city manager previously has described the budget-preparation process as an inexact science reflecting a number of uncertainties, including unforeseen expenses, which are planned for in a manner that errs on the side of caution.
At times, a budget year has turned out more successful than anticipated due to planned projects being delayed or other developments that impacted spending positively, based on comments from past discussions.
Jones’ response, however, prompted another citizen to speak during the forum, John Pritchard, who also monitors city government affairs.
Pritchard reminded the city council that its normal procedure allows citizens to address the officials during the forum, but citizens aren’t allowed to speak at other times of meetings. By the same token, officials also have refrained from responding to comments from citizens, with the forums deemed as times for them to simply listen.
“We don’t seem to be adhering to that,” Pritchard said of the exchange between Jones and Eich.
“I think if the citizens need to adhere to that policy, the board should,” he said of Jones and the commissioners.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter