Should Farmington council members pay for tickets to community events out of their $3,000 stipend? Or should the cost come out of the council’s annual budget?
That debate happened during Monday’s city council meeting, held in a conference room at City Hall. Council member Bill Galvin had asked for a deeper look at the $59,000 budget, given the city’s current financial position.
“If we’re going to ask our citizens to look at potentially a tax increase, we need to lead by example,” Galvin said. “We’ve gotta take a dose of our own medicine and review this more than we have in the past.”
City manager David Murphy broke down budgeted expenses, which include salaries, insurance and bonds, office and meeting supplies, memberships in professional organizations, professional development, and costs associated with attending local events to which officials are invited. He said salaries are set by the city charter.
Murphy said city managers in other communities told him that while expenditures are similar, “everyone is different. It’s just a matter of where communities decide to put these items.”
Council member Sara Bownman favored keeping the professional memberships, as the four groups – Michigan Municipal League (MML), 8 Mile Boulevard Association, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), and Greater Farmington Area Chamber – offer value to the city.
She also pointed out that the $1,800 budget for event tickets covers all five council members.
“There is an expectation that we attend and support these groups,” she said. “Of all the line items, that to me is the absolute most important.”
Council member Maria Taylor agreed about keeping the professional memberships, but said, “I do not feel right spending $1,000 on any one (community) event. The (Police Benevolent Association) golf outing and (Farmington/Farmington Hills Foundation for Youth and Families) gala, both of those require the city to expend $1,000.”
Taylor said she understood that the council stipend was to cover council costs. “I think we ought to use that money to cover the cost of attending events, instead of making the taxpayers pay twice.”
Galvin saw the stipend as “a representation of the city saying thank you for your time and service.” He said council members aren’t reimbursed for gas, parking fees, or the time they take from work to attend city and community functions. He also objected to “defunding” the charitable organizations that benefit local police and families in need.
“If we’re going to make any significant dent, it would be the frills and the fluff, the trainings and education,” he said.
The council’s $10,000 professional development budget includes two MML conferences for all five officials, but Murphy said not everyone attends those. Galvin felt that could be cut because the MML has all of its presentations online.
“What it really comes down to with the Capital Conference and MML conference, is it’s a trip,” he said.
“The MML conference is extremely important, any education is extremely important.” Murphy countered. “It’s the interaction with other council members from across the state…that you’re not going to get with the slides.”
Taylor suggested a compromise, with the city paying for registration fees and officials covering their meals and hotel. She also clarified, “I would never want to defund or not support charitable organizations or ask events to waive their admissions. I think it’s important to fund those organizations.”
Mayor Steven Schneemann was “vehemently against” taking away from the Police Benevolent Association and the Foundation.
“That would be a slap in the face of our public safety officers as well as our needy families,” he said. “I think that would be a real blow to morale.”
He supported keeping the professional development budget and said he had heard suggestions that council reduce or eliminate the stipend.
“The good news is, that’s not unprecedented,” he said. “There have been previous council members who have not taken their stipend and given it back to the city.”
Schneemann added that council members could give back their stipends or decide not to attend a conference without a vote of the council. “That’s something we should each consider, depending on how we feel about the status of the council budget, and then approach city administration about making those adjustments.”
Bowman immediately volunteered to give up her stipend, but Galvin said he didn’t think she should, because she gives a lot of time to the city.
“The overarching concept here is to ensure we’re not abusing taxpayer dollars,” he said. “It’s about looking at our budget to see if there’s any fat to trim. ”
Schneemann called for an end to the conversation; officials took no action on the item.