Thursday, August 14, 2014
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City discusses purchase and emergency spending policy

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[August 14, 2014]  LINCOLN - Tuesday evening the Lincoln City Council met for their first committee-of-the-whole workshop session for the month of August. Seven members of the council were present with Alderwoman Melody Anderson being absent for the evening.

Aldermen made quick work of most of the items on Mayor Keith Snyder’s list for the evening, but did spend quite a bit of time discussing a motion that had been voted down at last week’s meeting.

At the July 29th workshop, with Snyder and Anderson both absent for the evening, Tom O’Donohue filled the position of mayor pro-tem. On his list of items to discuss was an introduction of a policy change that would set parameters for dollars that can be spent by city department heads and officials without the voting consent of the council.

The change included allowing city department heads to spend up to $5,000 at one time for purchases that were included in the annual budget, without coming to the council for additional approval.

In addition, it would allow the mayor, mayor pro-tem, or the city administrator, the authority to spend up to $20,000, in the budget, without prior council approval; and in excess of $20,000 for something that is not in the budget for emergency situations.

On that night, the council seemed to be hung up by the definition of ‘emergency’ and had reservations about giving anyone what was referred to as an "open checkbook.”

A motion was placed on the agenda, but on August 4th it was voted down. At that meeting, with O’Donohue again acting as mayor pro-tem, Michelle Bauer made a motion and Scott Cooper offered the second. Jeff Hoinacki was absent for the evening, so seven aldermen made up the vote with Anderson, Kathy Horn, Jonie Tibbs and Marty Neitzel all voting “No,” and Bauer, Cooper and O’Donohue voting “Yes.”

At that meeting prior to the vote, Neitzel said she’d received more comments from citizens in her ward regarding this than any other issue the council has ever addressed. She said all the comments had been to not permit this change to pass. She said she would have to vote the conscience of her ward.

Horn said she too had received negative comments on this. She said that she too was concerned about the open checkbook.

Anderson said that overall she was not opposed to the idea. She said she was most uncomfortable with the wording of the policy addressing emergency situations. She said what she wanted was better wording and somewhat of a definition of what constitutes an emergency.

This week Snyder was back in the chamber to lead the workshop. After dispensing with several items, he came to the topic of the policy. He began by saying that though he had been absent, he had been told the primary concern at voting time was the authority for emergency expenditures. He said before they discussed that part of the issue, he wondered if there was any other portion of the policy aldermen were concerned about.

Tibbs said she felt the council should always have control of the money, but Snyder said “We’re a $13,000,000 organization, and you’re not going to have control over everything. You do that with the budget; you pass a budget that sets the parameters for all the departments.”

Tibbs went on to say that she was also not pleased that the council no longer sees actual invoices for the bills.

Snyder said that not everyone shared that displeasure. He noted that when the city decided to hire an administrator, one of the goals was to put the burden of examining the invoices on that person. The idea was that aldermen should spend less time laboring over day-to-day operations and more time acting as the governing body.

Snyder moved on, drawing attention to a section of the policy that addressed buying local. The language had been added to stipulate that when local bids came in higher, but within reason, preference would be given to that local business. He asked if everyone was okay with this portion of the policy, and by nod of the head all agreed they were.

Mayor Snyder then moved on to the troubling part of the proposal, the emergency money. Snyder told the council the reason for this section was so that the mayor, regardless of who that person might be, could act quickly during a natural disaster. He said that portion of the policy could be better defined if that would help aldermen to feel more comfortable with it.

Neitzel said that her constituents were still concerned about the council not having control of the money.

Snyder said his concern was disasters, and he asked then if the city should be hit by a tornado, should it continue to operate as normal, or should administrators be allowed to make critical decisions.

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Snyder had explained that dealing with the aftermath of a tornado is crucial. He remarked that when he participates in the Logan County Emergency Management Agency's table top exercises, that is one of the primary questions, “How to deal with the aftermath.”

The discussion continued and the terminology evolved from “emergency” to “natural disaster.”

Then the question came up, who says when the city is in a disaster situation?

O’Donohue suggested the city follow the lead of Dan Fulscher of the EMA. “If we trust Dan Fulscher to decide what is and isn’t an emergency, and we kind of do, can’t we use that (as part of the criteria)?”

Jeff Hoinacki agreed with O’Donohue. He referred to the situation for the city of Washington and said if something like that happened in Lincoln, the aldermen might not be able to get together.

Neitzel said she was looking for something the people of the city could understand -- What would happen, and when that money would be spent.

Snyder expanded his explanation of the process. He said it would begin with the mayor issuing a proclamation of a state of emergency. In that proclamation, he or she would state what the emergency is, and that emergency procedures would be in effect for a certain period. He then said the council would have the ability to revoke the emergency status before that timeline expired if they saw fit.

“Here are some general thoughts. Whoever is in the mayor’s seat, if they want this authority, they need to sign a proclamation. It (the proclamation) needs to spell out the reason for it, how long it is going to last. I think the council needs to have the authority if let’s say as an example, a tornado comes through tonight, if this were in place we could say ‘for the next month these emergency spending procedures are going to be in place.’ A week into it, we have a council meeting and everything is fine, then everything could be revoked.”

Eventually, Snyder asked the council if he were to remove all the language regarding the emergency spending would the council be willing to approve the balance of the motion regarding spending within budget limits. He said they would continue to work on the emergency procedures as a separate topic.

With the emergency procedure removed, the balance of the motion would allow department heads to authorize up to $5,000 in spending providing it was an item already approved in the annual budget.

For an item in the budget costing between $5,000 and $20,000, the city administrator or the mayor would have ability to authorize the expenditure without additional council approval.

For any item with a singular cost exceeding $20,000, the purchase would still require council approval.

Examples of the three levels of authority would be:

If the council approves buying firefighter equipment for $3,000 in the budget, then the fire chief can make that purchase at his discretion without further permission from the council.

If the budget calls for $15,000 for a particular piece of equipment, the city administrator or mayor will have the authority to approve the purchase without further permission from the council.

If the budget calls for $30,000 for the purchase of a vehicle, that particular item would still have to come before the council for further permission, even though it was budgeted.

In the end, it was decided to put this portion only of the amended procedure on next week’s voting agenda. The council will continue the discussion of emergency or disaster spending with an expectation there will be a motion for the agenda at a later date.


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