CLINTON — An increased state of Iowa gas tax means extra funding for cities everywhere. By tacking on 10 cents per gallon, the state is set to receive an extra $15 million in revenue, which looks like another $470,000 for the city of Clinton.
However, city leaders were at a crossroads when discussing how best to implement those new funds. Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting was the platform for a divided City Council.
Calling the funding increase “unprecedented,” City Administrator Jessica Kinser proposed the city should reinvest in its streets department, hiring three new full-time employees and bringing the staff up to nine. Money would also be allocated to “pavement preservation” — touch ups of recently fixed roads — as well as new equipment purchases. Through a budget amendment effective July 1, the city would spend roughly $432,263 of its allotment, $225,663 of which would go to new employees.
Some councilmen — Ed O’Neill and Paul Gassman among them — favored the proposal. A short-staffed street department is among the biggest citizen complaints they hear. Others — John Rowland and Tom Determann — said the council might be putting the cart before the horse.
“I would prefer to work slowly,” Rowland said. “Depending on how things go down the road, we laid (employees) off once, maybe we’d have to lay them off again.”
Without fully knowing the scope of the Road Use Fund law, or how those funds can be used, Determann said the council was making long-term commitments without knowing what may happen in the short term.
“You hire three people, you made a commitment to those people,” he said. Quoting a recent conversation he had with Iowa Department of Transportation Director Paul Trambino, Determann added the department wants the funds poured directly into street work. “I think it’s unfair to those people.”
The new legislation contains little-to-no language indicating what cities can’t do with the funds. To some, no rules meant Kinser’s proposal should stand.
Gassman believes the funds will address an area of neglect for the city. Three more employees improves the city’s ability to tackle projects and gives Clinton more bodies to throw at issues like snow removal.
“I actually thought this was a step in the right direction,” Gassman said. “People are sick of our roads and not having enough people to take care of them. It’s a pretty sad situation. I think as long as you have the funding source, it’s not a bad idea to put some people in there...
“To do nothing, I think, is the wrong thing. Sometimes it takes a year for anything to get through our council. I’d like to see the streets improve, and if this can help, I’m all for it.”
Mayor Mark Vulich also was cautious about jumping fully on board with Kinser’s proposal. But after City Attorney Pat O’Connell stated there is no indication the state will retroactively punish cities for making hires, Vulich said increasing street personnel is the best way to serve citizens with the money.
“Our street department, our public works department, has been woefully understaffed,” Vulich said. “I want to make sure we’re on solid ground with our decision... I want to make sure we’ve crossed all our t’s and dotted all our i’s.”
Although O’Neill motioned for a different proposal — one that took out the pavement preservation components and added almost $200,000 contingency for next year’s budget — he voted “yes” on Kinser’s proposal. Citizens are waiting for a street department that can address Clinton’s needs, he said.
“We’re here to govern the city of Clinton,” O’Neill said. “If we generate the gas tax and get the money back, we should be the ones who decide what we do with it. That’s our money to use for our citizens and our roads. If we’re going to take care of them, that’s fine.”
Several asked Kinser if the services handled by the new employees could be contracted out. While several of their work duties — mowing, street sweeping and alley grading — could indeed be handled by private companies, Kinser said staffing is one of the city’s main problems.
That is, having fewer bodies on hand limits Clinton’s abilities to address immediate issues throughout its bounds.
“What you’ll still have is you’ll end up in situations where you have one employee to cover the whole city,” Kinser said, making note of paid time off for the current six on hand. “It’s the staffing challenges when we have people on vacation or backfilling on solid waste and the impact that has on our community.”
The council voted 5-2 to move the matter onto the next regular council agenda, where it will appear in resolution form for a vote of adoption. Rowland and Determann were the dissenters.
Considering the staffing woes, this is a vote of confidence that surely pleases Kinser.
“Staffing has been difficult with a crew of six, and we saw those difficulties in the winter time with snow removal,” she said. “This is one of the first things we looked at as being a high priority.”
Assistant Editor Brenden West can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org