With only one business item on the agenda, the Mesquite City Council meeting on Tuesday, April 23, promised to be short without much fire. It didn’t turn out that way when City Attorney Bob Sweetin read a prepared statement refuting information posted on social media regarding his office’s expenses and staff.
During the council comment portion of the meeting, Councilwoman Annie Black expressed her displeasure over the upcoming budget process complaining that the city manager would not make Mesquite’s budget available to the council or public until May 7 giving them only a week to review the document before public hearings.
Sweetin’s remarks, made during the staff comment period, were directed at Black who has questioned the city’s contract with a private law firm for whom he works, and the amount of money budgeted for his department.
“The document posted to social media is not something that I submitted, and the numbers reflected, for the most part, are not numbers that I or my staff recognize, though we’ve tried,” Sweetin said. “I do want to clarify some of the glaring inaccuracies and misinformation I have found while going through this spreadsheet about my department prepared by someone who does not work within it.”
There are not seven full-time employees in the City Attorney’s office, Sweetin said. He explained that his office employs one paralegal, one legal support assistant, one receptionist, and additional part-time and grant-funded positions. He also uses part-time law clerks who work for short periods of time, without benefits, and perform attorney-level work.
There are also two grant-funded Victim Advocates who work with the city attorney’s office and are largely paid from federal and state funding programs, not city funds. Sweetin explained grant monies are not discretionary and cannot be used for any other city operations than those programs for which they are designated.
Sweetin said, “this city council cannot choose how those funds are used. They must be used in accordance with the intended purpose of the grant, which is to provide victim advocate services. Because of my career in law enforcement, having spent the last 10 years as a prosecutor at the federal, state and local level I’ve seen the harms, both temporary and permanent, to victims of crimes especially domestic violence.
“I will note that our victim advocate has revolutionized the resources available to domestic violence victims in this town. Before we had to rely on Safe Nest out of Las Vegas who often was unable to provide resources. Now we have our very own advocate on call 24/7 who, with the indispensable assistance of Mesquite Gaming and the Eureka, assists in providing emergency food, transportation, clothing and housing for victims in horrible situations.”
He went on to say the current operational set-up in his office has saved the city money over the years and not cost more when all considerations were made.
Generally, the city budget process begins early in February with all department heads submitting their requests to the city manager. Through meetings and discussions, the city manager, director of finance and the department managers cull the “wish lists” down to fit within the projected income streams for the next fiscal year.
The proposed budgets for the upcoming fiscal year 2019-2020 will be released to the public and council approximately May 7. Public meetings will be conducted May 15 and 16 during which each budget item will be discussed, debated and decided upon. The final budget will be voted on at the May 28 city council meeting after which it will be sent to the state.
Sweetin asked that his department’s public budget hearing be conducted after the council’s technical review meeting on May 7 as he will be out of town during the regularly scheduled public hearings. Mayor Pro Tem Brian Wursten approved his request.
“I am happy to discuss any aspect of my budget, publicly and in an open setting, to address any questions council or the public may have” Sweetin said. “What I object to is having to account for numbers in a budget document that I did not produce, and which includes all of the misinformation I just corrected. Furthermore, this document was presented in a social media setting rather than through the public budget process created for the express purpose to avoid miscommunication and inaccuracies.”
Councilwoman Black said she had not been allowed to have any input into the tentative budget nor was she allowed to discuss individual department budgets with the managers. “Our budgets are not built around a strategic plan that the council and citizens have created,” Black said. “This council must be included along with the city manager in creating our budget.”
City Manager Barton responded to Black saying, “There is absolutely no attempt to cut council out of the budget process. We are preparing the budget on the advice and consent we believe we’ve received from the council.”
Barton said the city staff is still working through the budget “because of a projected shortfall. We will have the budget ready on May 7 and post it online May 8. Council will have a chance to weigh in and change any part they don’t like. There is no attempt on staff’s part to not have full transparency or cut out the council or public. We are preparing this budget the same way we’ve prepared it for the last seven years.”
Black said that she posted the attorney’s office budget on social media in an attempt to get the information out to the public. She added the numbers in the post were produced for her by the city finance director. She said there is “extra money being spent, and extra employees being hired in the [legal] department over the last four years.”
With that, Mayor Pro Tem Wursten invited the public to attend all of the budget workshops that will be held May 15 and 16 and provide their input.