Berlin Not Funding Police Chief Assistant Position

BERLIN – Debate over funding for an administrative position requested by Berlin’s police chief highlighted introduction of the town’s proposed budget.

On Monday the Berlin Town Council voted not to include funding for an administrative assistant requested by Chief Arnold Downing in the proposed budget. While Councilman Dean Burrell advocated strongly for the position, arguing that he’d been under the impression it was to be included, others said the request was made too late in the budget process.

“I don’t think this was any ill intent,” Mayor Gee Williams said. “We’re not looking for anybody to suffer but at the same time I have concerns when we don’t follow the process that’s gotten us to a very good point financially.”

Burrell’s concerns regarding the position came as the town officially introduced its $17,963,594 fiscal year 2019 budget. The budget, which is nearly 6 percent lower than the current year’s spending plan, is expected to be approved in June, following a public hearing. The two largest categories of the budget are the general fund, which accounts for $6.9 million, and the electric fund, which accounts for $5.7 million.

Burrell told his peers he’d been surprised to realize Monday morning that the budget being introduced did not include the administrative assistant Downing had asked for at the last budget work session.

“To find that position was not included was kind of disheartening,” he said.

Williams said Downing had made the request during a work session that was meant to be devoted to the utility funds. He said Town Administrator Laura Allen had also not received the supporting information she’d requested regarding the position. Williams added that there would be an opportunity for Downing to make the request again during next year’s budget process. Staff said that with a salary of $38,000 and the cost of benefits, the position would cost the town about $44,000.

When Burrell asked if council members could provide input on the budget, in spite of the fact that in Berlin, which has a strong mayor style of government, it was “the mayor’s budget,” Williams said that input came during budget work sessions. Burrell said he thought that based on the discussion at the work session the new position had been incorporated into the budget.

“In my naivete, I just assumed that it had been included,” he said, adding that he’d like to make a motion to see funding for the position included in the budget.

Williams acknowledged that Burrell could put the issue up for a vote.

“I do see that as going around the budget process that has served us very well…,” he said. “If it’s supposed to be my budget, why the hell didn’t I know a damn thing about it? I’m not hard to get along with. I’m very accessible. The last I heard anything about this was 2011.”

Councilman Thom Gulyas said he understood Burrell’s desire to see the position funded but that he shared the mayor’s concerns. He agreed that the town should stick to the usual budget process.

“It just seems a little strange to me that all the sudden it was thrown out at the last minute,” he said.

Councilman Elroy Brittingham asked Downing to weigh in on the issue.

Downing said he’d provided the information requested by Allen. He said he’d simply mentioned his desire to hire an assistant at the work session and that if that was the first the council had heard of it, there was some disconnect since he’d provided information to town staff.

“I haven’t had an assistant since I’ve been police chief which is 15 years,” Downing said. “If I have to wait another year or another year, I’ll still do the same job I’ve been doing the best I can do.”

Allen however said she’d not received all the information she’d requested regarding the need for an administrative assistant at the police department.

“The focus of his pitch to me was everybody else has one I want one too …,” she said. “I feel like my responsibility to you all and to the taxpayers is to make sure we’re making thoughtful decisions when it comes to hiring people.”

Burrell maintained that his motion was based on the discussion the council had at the work session and his assumption that funding for the position was being included in the budget. The motion failed, as it received the support of Burrell and Brittingham but was opposed by Gulyas, Councilman Zack Tyndall and Councilman Troy Purnell.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.