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Council scrutinizes budget, limits fund transfers

Date: 6/27/2014

AGAWAM -  The City Council delved into the fiscal year 2015 (FY15) budget at its regular meeting on June 23. After two and a half hours, the council approved amendments to the FY15 proposal including the prohibition of interdepartmental transfers without council approval and a $150,000 reduction of the reserve fund.
Councilors Gina Letellier and Robert Rossi led the questioning regarding balances in accounts and whether the money was designated for specific uses or could be put back into the budget. Councilor Donald Rheault was not in attendance.
"I think we've come to a point, I believe, in my opinion, where our budget is out of control," Rossi said.
Letellier went through each special revenue fund account, questioning Mayor Richard Cohen, Auditor Cheryl St. John and Treasurer/Collector Laurel Placzek about remaining balances and why the funds weren't better utilized.
She said, "I'm always looking for, 'Is there money we can use in the budget than adding to the tax [burden of residents].' Why haven't these things been considered? Shouldn't this been thought about in the budget process?"
Letellier asked Cohen about the status of the Agawam Municipal Golf Course, a self-sustaining department, which was listed as having an $111,800 loss as of June 10. The fiscal year closes June 30. She wanted to know if the mayor created a revised budget given the financial loss.
Placzek informed Letellier that the budgets are created based upon the projected revenues and that the golf course budget was adjusted but she was not sure if it would cover the entire loss. If the shortfall could not be covered by the end of the fiscal year, the loss would either be added to the tax levy or settled with free cash, depending on what action the council chose to take.
"The year's not over. Right now our prediction is that there could be a $10,000 or $12,000 loss," Cohen said.

He mentioned that many people from town have complimented the quality of the course. "Things are looking good," Cohen said.
"I would respectively disagree that the golf course is doing well. The greens fees are down $170,000 from last year. The cart rentals are down $50,000 from last year. The pro shop is down $50,000 from last year," Letellier responded. She noted that the numerous golf shirts were liquidated, despite the fact that they don't go "stale."
Rossi's main point of contention was the use of $278,000 from the compost bin account to purchase eight vehicles for the town including a new car for the mayor, transactions that never went before the council and with revenue from the town's recycling programs.
"Why haven't those revenues been divided into separate line item revolving accounts?" Rossi asked, referring to the fact that the monies were being spent on items other than compost bins and should be distinguished as such. He referred to the account as a "cash cow."
Cohen said, "It wasn't an issue until I bought a car for myself, at no cost to the taxpayers, that's fuel efficient. I had a car that was almost 12-years-old with 44,000 miles that had an Interceptor engine."
The mayor said the issue has already been discussed and that Rossi has never question the account until now. He added, "You were out taking pictures of my VIN, my plate, the whole bit. That's wonderful. You're not a detective; you're a counselor. Nothing was done illegally. You're a piranha looking for an ankle to bite and unfortunately, you're biting the wrong ankle."
City Council President Christopher Johnston said, "It comes back to a simple concept, communication, so that we have some concept of how this money's being spent. The difficulty I'm having is, we're being asked to fund something, to perpetuate these revolving funds and there's not a lot of definition as to what is coming out of these revolving funds. We're the appropriating authority, so I think we need to have a better handle on where the money's going."
The council prohibited interdepartmental transfers with one amendment.
The second sentence of the second paragraph of the resolution to adopt the budget was changed to read "Said adoption shall not allow administrative transfer of funds from any line item within any category of any departmental or the line item budget to any other line item within the same category of the same departmental or line item budget."
The council also voted to limit the spending of the compost bin account to $25,000 and to reduce the reserve fund from $400,000 to $250,000.