BRISTOL, Va. — The City Council approved a comprehensive financial policy and the framework for a capital improvement budget Tuesday but rejected a plan for two advisory committees.
The council unanimously approved a 17-page financial program to help guide city financial practices, which will be reviewed regularly to standardize policy on city spending. The program covers borrowing, spending, properly dealing with debt, using city credit cards, permissible travel expenses and reimbursement.
The city previously had no written policies to govern those and other financial practices, City Manager Randy Eads said after the meeting
“We have it in place, and someone can undo the policy, but no one can say we weren’t looking forward and looking out for the future of the city. We recognize our problems; we’re trying to address those problems and put measures in place so the city never gets back into the condition we’re in today,” Eads said after the meeting.
The city has all but maxed out its allotted borrowing limit with more than $100 million in general obligation bond debt. The city’s landfill is a drain on the city budget, and meeting basic expenses has been challenging. In late 2017, the state Auditor of Public Accounts identified Bristol as the most financially distressed locality in Virginia. The new financial policies are designed to address some of those challenges.
Mayor Kevin Mumpower, who has advocated for strict policies on all the city’s financial operations, said Tuesday was like they “fell over the goal line.”
“I think it’s a big milestone for us,” Mumpower said. “I’m pretty aggressive when it comes to that, and I wanted to be more aggressive than the policies state, but I think what we’ve got is a very good structure. It addressed all the big concerns. I think having the debt thresholds in there, that you don’t apply general obligation debt or moral debt to private enterprise — the things we’ve made mistakes on in the past — is now pretty well-outlined in that policy.”
The policy also includes accountability. If the city exceeds debt thresholds, the auditors have to note it each year, and city leaders are required to develop a plan to correct problems.
However, the council did not approve creating citizen advisory committees to assist the council on developing its operating budget and dealing with its solid waste landfill operations. Mumpower and Vice Mayor Kevin Wingard favored the committees, but a Wingard motion to establish them died due to lack of a second.
“I’m disappointed. I think we’ll get there. I think a couple of councilmen were concerned about how to go about it. But not to involve the citizens and set up a focus group like that — I feel like we’re missing an opportunity,” Mumpower said.
During the discussion, Councilman Bill Hartley questioned the makeup of each committee, which was proposed as up to seven members.
“How did we come up with five to seven? That seems like a reasonable number, but you’re trying to find 10 to 14 people, and a lot of times we struggle to get people to serve on boards and commissions,” Hartley said. He also suggested they might receive better input in a public forum.
The council also got its first look at a capital improvement plan that would set aside money each year for large expenses, including vehicles.
In other matters, the City Council approved the fire department’s request to sign long-term lease agreements to secure two fire trucks — one pumper and one ladder truck — with a combined price tag of $1.57 million.
“This was already in the budget,” Eads said. “It’s a 10-year lease, and the equipment we have isn’t serviceable.”