McCLEARY — McCleary Mayor Gary Dent was a no show during Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, two weeks after he submitted a list of drastic cuts that would lay off the McCleary Police Department, close the library, the museum and many other city services by 2015 if residents don’t approve a property tax hike next year.
With a capacity audience and many people spilling out into the hallways, and a broadcast news reporter on hand for an evening news special report, Mayor Dent stayed home. He delivered a short message to his council via speaker phone, leaving many unanswered questions from both the public and his council members, who are still trying to figure out exactly what’s going on.
“One thing that hasn’t been presented to council at all is the actual facts on what it’s going to cost and what is it going to cost to contract out services for the court, for the police department?” McCleary Councilman Brent Schiller said. “I’ve been asking for this since November. If we do these cuts in services and if we have to contract out, what’s this going to actually save for current expense? I don’t know what the facts are.”
McCleary resident Megan Wilkerson said she was worried a levy could just be a “Band-Aid” that may not fix the city’s problems, with too little revenue and too many expenses.
“As we wait for the levy to pass, does our library close?” Wilkerson asked. “What happens to city services?”
“You can’t formulate a budget on a hope or a maybe, you need to look down the road a year or two or three,” Councilman Jeff Catterlin said. “There’s some hard choices that need to be made. … Nobody wants to get rid of the police department. Nobody wants to close the library or anything else. But, at the same time, if we’re going to run a levy for law enforcement to shore up the current expense fund, to me it’s only right and fair the community knows all the information. … If the levy fails, then what happens? And the community needs to know what could happen.”
Whatever is done for the 2014 budget will really only be a stop gap measure as Dent has proposed a list of deep cuts for 2015 if residents don’t approve a property tax hike next year. A date for the potential ballot measure has not been set and the council has not yet approved the mayor’s request.
The mayor had said he’ll “dismantle” the police department, outsourcing the service to either Elma or the Sheriff’s Office. He’ll also close the museum, library, cemetery, parks, outsource court services, outsource fire services and lay off more employees.
“Fellow elected officials, I’m really sorry, this is the second meeting I’ve missed,” Dent said via speaker phone. “All I want the other council members to know is I’m also going through a serious health thing related to cancer. I’ve already had one surgery. There’s probably going to be a couple of others between now and the end of January. That does not mean I’m not controlling the government on the administrative side. …
“I want all of you to understand that I’m not going to cut anything that I don’t have to,” Dent stressed. “And I think I have a potential solution to that and I just want you all to try to get along amicably. Any of you are free to call me at some point.”
Dent said by phone on Thursday that he has cancer. He says it was discovered a week after Election Day and his health has prevented him from coming into City Hall very much.
“I’m running the government from here,” Dent said from his home.
He says he has had a lot of doctor’s appointments with surgeries scheduled in the coming weeks and radiation treatment to be done after that.
That said, he says the city still needs to put out a budget.
His first memo sent on Nov. 20, introduced a $1 million budget that would lay off a police officer position and a police clerk position. He’ll also cut the city’s building official position down from 20 hours a week to eight hours a week. The budget would also eliminate the $3,000 the city gives to the McCleary Museum to pay for its utility bills. Dent says that without volunteers or a fundraiser, the museum may have to close.
Dent released a budget on Dec. 4 that still included most of the cuts. It just relied a bit more on some interfund transfers in the city’s power and light accounts.
“It has been, and is not, an easy process,” Dent wrote in another memo to council members, adding that he has asked his clerk treasurer Wendy Collins to work with him on the budget. “My anticipation is that following any suggestions or recommendations you might make, Wendy and I will do one more review so that at the meeting on the 11th, the final budget for next year can be adopted,” he wrote.
On Thursday, Dent says he’s made some more changes that he didn’t want to release yet. He’ll talk about those when the McCleary City Council next meets at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 11, at McCleary City Hall.
“My plan is to be there this time,” Dent said.