By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily
CHEYENNE – A controversial proposal to enact a temporary hiring freeze in the city’s $56 million budget for Fiscal Year 2020 was eliminated upon third and final reading before the Cheyenne City Council’s Committee of the Whole on Wednesday evening.
The hiring freeze, which had been proposed by Councilman Dicky Shanor as part of a larger amendment that was approved unanimously the previous week, sparked criticism on social media from Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak. Kozak contended that a hiring freeze would leave CPD understaffed by more than two dozen officers, which would in turn require CPD to suspend previously scheduled training and reassign the public information officer and half of the department’s school resources officers to the patrol division in order to maintain general public safety.
Shanor said in interviews he was concerned with “the politicization of law enforcement” he felt was evidenced by Kozak’s statement, which singled out Shanor by name. That prompted Mayor Marian Orr to defend the chief, characterizing his statements as advocacy for the public’s right to know how a hiring freeze could impact their safety.
Despite the rancor, however, Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting – the nine councilmen minus the mayor – was relatively quick and quiet, as was the decision to scrap the hiring freeze altogether via an amendment. Even so, Council President Rocky Case noted early on that the large public turnout he and other council members expected as a result of the hiring freeze debate had not materialized. Only two members of the public chose to speak, including Stephanie Lowe, president of the Cheyenne Public Employees Association, who asked the committee to reconsider its recommendation to cap the total number of city employees for fiscal year 2020 at 578.1 positions, and instead give department directors the leeway to hire as needed, provided they have the budget and data to support each position.
“Staff have created a great plan for the city and I’m concerned about crippling departments that may prevent important work from getting done,” Lowe said. “Let’s not all forget the growing size of our community, which needs a growing workforce to keep up with maintenance at the least, but also to keep attracting new businesses and residents to work here.”
But with the hiring freeze lifted, committee members opted to leave the employee cap in place. Instead, a portion of the funds that would have been saved by the hiring freeze will instead be made up through $100,000 in reversions – budgeted funds that go unspent and return to city reserves – anticipated at the end of FY 2019.
Committee members also heard from local physician Dr. Jasper “J.J.” Chen, who argued against cutting funds from the Cheyenne Downtown Development Authority, suggesting that the city instead define clear outcomes it wants to see from the DDA, then track its progress to determine future funding.
“We should do this instead of making the more dramatic and drastic decisions to take away a substantial portion of the DDA’s funding without empirical data justifying doing so,” Chen said.
Mayor Orr’s initial budget proposal allocated just $100,000 for the DDA, down from $390,000 this year and $450,499 the previous fiscal year. But once amendment markups were concluded Wednesday, the DDA was ultimately budgeted for $290,000 for FY 2020, while the Cheyenne Animal Shelter will receive an additional $107,500, for a total budget of $612,500.
Committee members also rejected an amendment proposed by Ward III Councilman Ken Esquibel that would have cut Cheyenne’s $50,000 annual membership in the Wyoming Association of Municipalities. Esquibel argued that, with a citizen legislature only in session a maximum of 60 days in a year, WAM’s lobbying efforts were costing Cheyenne $1,666 per day, even as local legislators generally vote in the city’s interests.
“We’re basically throwing $50,000 into the wind,” he said.
Committee member Mark Rinne pointed out that Mayor Orr is going to be on the Resolutions Committee for WAM this year, and that the organization recently gained a new director in J. David Fraser.
He added that council members had previously discussed the need to participate in more WAM events, and Esquibel’s amendment ultimately failed, with Esquibel himself the only affirmative vote.
With Wednesday’s amendments thus dispensed with, the latest incarnation of the city’s FY 2020 budget will come before the full City Council for final approval at 6 p.m. Monday, June 10.