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Earlier this year I noted that the city would not be happy if the N.C. Legislature had to step in and resolve the problems between the city and its utility, Fayetteville PWC. With the recriminations, gnashing of teeth and dire threats of financial ruin and hiring freezes coming from city hall, it would seem that my prediction was correct.

Earlier this month, the local contingent to the N.C. Legislature filed a local bill (NCHB 392) defining the roles of each party in the charter and the responsibilities of each. For PWC, the bill keeps the city’s hand out of its till and doing what it is supposed to do — appointing members to the utility board and letting the utility take care of its own business. For the city, that’s the equivalent of losing the goose that lays the golden egg. But hey, they took their chances, they rolled the dice and they lost. This is not a big surprise to anyone.

But, for City Manager Ted Voorhees, who was counting on the cash cow to help pay the bills, it stings. On April 1, Voorhees sent out a memo to the city’s senior management team expressing his displeasure with the legislature.

In his memo, Voorhees predicts an impact of approximately $1.6 million on the city’s 2016 budget from the changes to the PWC charter by the legislature. Voorhees’ number came from the assumption that PWC would no longer support programs it has supported in the past such as Fay TV, Enterprise GIS, audits and budgets. Voorhees also noted that the legislative action would impact the current budget to a tune of about $400,000.

With that in mind, he directed all departments to “slow spending dramatically for the remainder of the fiscal year,” and that “unless the charter bill funding formula is changed in a meaningful way, we are about to have a “new normal.”  

The most impactful knee-jerk reaction coming from city hall was a hiring freeze for all departments. With a stroke of a key, Voorhees put himself in charge of all hiring, ultimately deferring hiring until he found another way to “capture savings.”

In an effort to capture savings and “balance” the budget, Voorhees directed cuts to the following departments:

Police and Fire: 5%

All other General Fund departments: 10%

Environmental Services: 5%

Parks and Recreation:  A proposed new “Northern Area” pool was funded until the charter bill was filed. It is no longer funded. Please reassess your capital expenditures to find a way to finance a new pool by cutting something else or closing/consolidating the least used facilities.

Voorhees ended his memo with the following: “I wish this were an April Fool’s joke. It is not.”

On the flipside, those in the know see Voorhees’ reaction and pronouncement as quite foolish.

PWC countered that rather than losing money, the city would, in fact, be gaining money, noting the following:

“The net cash contribution to the City of Fayetteville General Fund for FY2015 is $9 million. The annual net cash contribution to the city will likely increase almost $500,000 in FY2016 and the increase will escalate every year with an estimated increase of $2.7 million over the current transfer agreement by FY2025.”

If you follow the numbers, it would seem that our city manager is making a mountain out of a mole hill. In reality, the city will not lose money, it will, in fact, gain money. This has been the problem from the get go when it comes to PWC.

Voorhees saw what his neighbor had and coveted it. He wanted it. It wasn’t his, but he still tried to take it. He tried to prove that PWC was in the wrong and was not handling its finances appropriately. This was a dead end road before he even started going down it. PWC has been lauded statewide and nationally for its fiscal responsibility. 

With his latest round of “the sky is falling,” Voorhees has shown his true colors; making sure that if things don’t go his way, everyone will feel the pain.

We have to ask: When will the members of our city council take off their blinders and truly look at their city manager? Will they continue to follow him blindly — even though the facts are against him?

This is the time for real leadership by the city council. Let’s hope they don’t continue in their “hear no evil, see no evil” mind set. It’s time for real leaders to make hard decisions. Who is going to step up? We wonder.

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