ROSWELL, Ga. ⁠— In a fireworks-laden Zoom meeting that got one official tossed, the Roswell City Council passed a $1.2 million, one-time employee bonus just in time for the holidays.

With that lone exception, the council voted to shelve plans to amend its current 2021 budget, keeping a freeze, for now, on about everything but bare-bones operations and maintenance.

The one-time payout will provide full-time employees earning less than $100,000 a year a check for $2,000. Part-time staff will receive $1,000. The bonuses will be pro-rated for those hired after Jan. 1, 2020.

Even on Zoom, tension at the Nov. 9 session was palpable.

Mayor Lori Henry said that while she is not ready to support a full slate of requests for additional spending, she thinks the city is in sound financial shape to compensate employees with bonus checks before the holidays. The checks would help compensate for action city officials took when they scrapped a planned 4 percent pay increase when the 2021 budget was adopted in June.

“Our employees have been delivering services and working on the front lines,” Henry said.

Other items the city had been considering for funding, like maintenance of the security system and replacement of fire vehicle communication headsets, must wait at least until the council revisits the topic later this month.

The slate of funding requests come at a time when the city is updating projections for revenues based on real-time trends. Sales tax revenues, for example, are coming in at higher levels than anticipated back in June when the budget was passed. The city also received almost $4 million in CARES Act dollars it hadn’t budgeted for. But that money is compensation for the city’s unanticipated expenses it ran up to address the COVID-19 crisis.

Proposal draws criticism

The limited spending proposal drew harsh rebuke from one council member.

“I have real issues with what’s going on here,” Councilman Mike Palermo said. “Ultimately, as we look at this year, people and companies in the private sector have had to make tough decisions. With this annual budget that passed 4-3 [back in June], there were really not tough decisions made.”

Palermo said the new spending proposals are being rammed through without proper vetting before the full council and the public.

“When you have half the council that chose to pass that budget which raised the taxes on homeowners, it was stated that this unique year, we will go through a mini version of the annual budget each quarter,” Palermo said. “This is not what we got.”

Finance Director Ryan Luckett said the new spending proposals were developed in meetings between department heads, finance staff and the mayor, and they were based on the latest data for projected revenues and savings within the current budget.

Based on the latest projections, which include the CARES funding, the city anticipates that it will end the budget year next June with a surplus of between $6 million to $8 million for operations. Traditionally, leftover money is applied to capital projects, like road resurfacing, for the following year.

Councilman Matthew Tyser, who supported the budget passed in June, said the proposed amendments were discussed at a work session in October. The updated economic forecast was released more recently, four days before the Nov. 9 council meeting, he said.

Tyser pointed out that, because of the COVID economy, the city slashed some $10 million in what was originally proposed in operational spending for this year. One casualty of these cuts, he said, was a 4 percent increase in employee compensation. Another $6 million was cut from capital spending for road repairs and facility maintenance, he said.

Tyser said he is willing to continue discussions with other council members to agree on which, if any, items should be funded outside the original budget.

Mayor calls out Palermo

The mayor said that mid-year budget amendments have been standard practice for more than two decades, and the current proposals went through the same process as past mid-year reviews.

“I would be supportive of deferring this to the next council meeting, because obviously many of you are not prepared to discuss this this evening,” she said.

At the same time, Henry insisted adding the employee pay package for immediate consideration.

Palermo countered that adding a seven-figure expense without allowing more time for discussion was “irresponsible” and “unfair to taxpayers.”

Councilman Marcelo Zapata bristled at the mayor’s suggestion that council members came to the meeting unprepared. He said some of the estimates did not match up, and the full council should be given time to settle those questions.

Things got even more heated in the home stretch after Tyser made a motion to table all new spending proposals except the employee compensation package. The motion gained a second, and Henry called for a vote.

But, Palermo had more to say.

“There should be a chance for discussion,” he said.

Mayor Henry would have none of it.

“You’re out of order again, Councilmember Palermo,” she said. “I am not certain what it is about this process that you have trouble with. We have a motion, we got a second, and I called for a vote.”

“On a seven-figure expenditure that’s never been discussed before tonight?” Palermo interjected. “That is unethical.”

At that point, the mayor cut off Palermo’s mic, which prompted Palermo to stand, grab his laptop and head downstairs to speak face-to-face with the mayor in the City Hall conference room. Somewhere along the way, Palermo’s internet connection was broken, freezing the fury on his face on the Zoom broadcast while the rest of the council voted. Palermo appeared seconds later in the same screen frame as the mayor, bursting into the room wearing a red mask, pointing angrily at the city’s chief executive.

The measure passed 4-1, with Zapata casting the lone dissent.

Palermo’s connection to the Zoom meeting was re-established after a short recess.

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