Part Two in an Ongoing Series
$100,000 for the city’s only public library? No.
100,000 for a City Hall chief of staff? Yes… and… no.
When the J. Crozer Lewis Library realized it was going to have a fiscal crisis in the coming years, it implored the city for help in 2011.
“When we were talking to the library board in 2011, they came to us and said, ‘We’re looking at our finances into the future; we’re gonna have a sizable shortfall we need to raise additional money,’” recalled Thomas Moore, former Chester City chief of staff. “We agreed we wanted the library to be sustainable in the long term so we sat down with the library and asked, ‘What’s the hole in the budget that you anticipate?’”
The library found it needed approximately $350,000 additionally to avoid an estimated $500,000 shortfall. Moore said city government was already supplying the library with about $150,000 dollars annually so the administration looked to the community for help and put the option to levy a tax for the library on the 2012 election ballot. The levy of 1.5 mills passed. That means an extra $1.50 each year is tacked onto each assessment of $1,000 in property tax bills in Chester that is dedicated funding to the library.
“When I was on Council for two years, the city gave the library a gift of $150,000 or $147,000 and that was not in the city’s budget per se,” stressed John Linder, now Chester’s mayor.
Linder had been a councilmember for two years prior to becoming mayor but once he and his Democrat colleagues were sworn-in, Linder said the financial landscape changed considerably.
“When we (Democrats) came in, significant dollars were moved or resources then were terminated. The residual effect of change of administration,” recounted Linder.
One resource added to the overall city budget was the salary of about $98,000 for the Chester City chief of staff. It was an expense Linder said he felt the city shouldn’t have taken on but in his first year as mayor, he used his Public Affairs Department’s discretionary monies to pay for his former campaign manager’s new position. The city was now carrying the new cost of Ron Starr’s position as chief of staff.
“We did not have the (chief of staff’s salary) money in our budget in the (Wendell Butler) administration so that role was paid for by the Water Authority,” explained Linder. “Before, the (previous) mayor had substantial discretionary funds, but when we came in, those sources started waning. The second year, I told Council that (Starr’s) position is not in the budget and I can’t maintain it.”
He said Council refused to cut Starr’s position, despite the mayor’s objections to keeping it.
“Council decided to keep Ron Starr as chief of staff for Council,” lamented Linder. “But as you know, Council has voted against me so.”
Linder felt his Council refused to honor his warnings about the new cost to the city and, in protest he refused to acknowledge Starr’s position in his department.
“Just so we are clear, Ron Starr is not the mayor’s chief of staff. He’s Council’s chief of staff, whatever that means,” pushed Linder. “They decided to do that and I told them I was not paying (for) that out of my budget, so they decided they would take parts of their budgets and pay for his salary.”
Linder said he told Deputy Mayor Nafis Nichols that Starr’s title needed to be changed to reflect that the mayor was not acknowledging Starr’s position.
“I told him we need to change his (Starr’s) title because he’s not chief of staff under the mayor but he is the chief of staff to Council or the special advisor to Council,” slammed Linder.
Nichols did not seem to agree with the mayor.
“There is a city ordinance that speaks specifically to the chief of staff and in that ordinance it says that the chief of staff reports to mayor and Council; that’s what I will say about that,” responded Nichols.
Yet the mayor insists that Starr does not report to him.
“He (Starr) was moved to Councilman Nichols’ department. He doesn’t report directly to me,” closed Linder.
Starr has not responded to The Spirit’s requests for comment.
The tight budget appears to have caused tight tensions between the mayor and Council. Every little penny added, lost or moved can impact the city’s recovery negatively, but Nichols asks that the community trust the city a little more.
“I’d like the community to have a little more faith in the administration. There (are) two sides to every story,” said Nichols. “One thing I’ve learned over the years, is that if you educate yourself and you read some things, you’ll know a whole lot more and you’ll get a better understanding of what is what.”
Linder says asking questions is what the community should do and he believes the city should have an answer.
“We are a public entity and we have a responsibility to give an answer and clarify those answers so I’m always welcoming any questions from the city,” said Linder. “The things I have to explain, sometimes doesn’t make the paper.”
Recently, the city has had difficulty explaining its lack of a completed audit for 2012 and 2013. This fact was underscored by the announcement that Standard & Poor’s Rating Services had suspended Chester City’s “A” credit rating due to the city’s “failure to supply Standard & Poor’s timely information…it had requested, in accordance with its policies.”