XENIA — City council narrowly voted to lift the city’s five-year-old hiring freeze Thursday, but it wasn’t without contention, banter and criticism.
Prior to the 4-2 vote with one abstention, back-and-forth discussions between council members became extremely tense and at one point even a bit personal, causing Council President Michael Engle to bang loudly with his gavel.
Engle broached the subject as a simple question to determine if the hiring freeze is still in place and the discussion turned heated quickly after he made a motion to vote on whether or not to continue the freeze. Councilman Dale Louderback, who is one of the three still on council from when the freeze was originally enacted, immediately objected.
“I’m a little bit confused,” Louderback said. “I made this motion on Oct. 22, 2009. It was passed by the council and to my knowledge unless you have some documentation otherwise, there’s been no change. I would like to see research done. If somebody can come up with something to contradict this, I would be glad to take a look at it. You know this council, it seems every time something doesn’t go their way they want a re-vote. This makes the third or fourth time … this council, they do a re-do if they don’t like what they get, they do a re-do. It just amazes me. (The hiring freeze) is in effect. We was in agreement in 2009 to have a hiring freeze. Why do we want a re-vote? We made a decision in ‘09.”
The subject of the hiring freeze came up in a special session prior to Thursday’s meeting and part of the concern stemmed from open positions that were filled in the police department and three firefighters who kept their jobs even after the expiration of a grant that paid their salaries.
“Lately there’s been some hiring done that I don’t think should have been done,” Louderback said. “It’s cost thousands of dollars without even anybody on council knowing about it. I’m a steward of the taxpayer’s money. I want you to know where your money is going and why and that hasn’t happened recently. This council is responsible for city budgets. Eighty-five percent of our budget is wages and salaries. That’s our job. Some on council might say that’s micromanaging. I totally disagree with that. It’s our job to not only approve budgets but oversee budgets.
Engle said that as a member of the budget subcommittee last year, the firefighters positions were included in the 2014 budget and it was passed unanimously.
Councilman Wesley Smith said he would have supported the hiring freeze if he was on council in 2009, but Xenia has a city manager to handle the day-to-day operations and council doesn’t need to oversee the implementation of the budget.
“The seven of us unanimously appointed (Brent Merriman) as our city manager and we had no problem making him our city manager, letting him make the decisions to run this city on a day-to-day operation that some of us council members don’t want to do.”
Louderback interjected, “I would suggest if you don’t want to do it, why are you on council? Eighty-five percent of our budget is salaries and benefits, is that not true?”
Said Smith, “It’s also to make policy and make policy decisions and it’s not to run the city manager’s office. That’s what we appointed him to do, is to do the job for us. The seven of us are not to run the city.”
Responded Louderback, “Don’t you think it’s part of our job to look at the wages and benefits in the City of Xenia?”
Smith replied, “It’s not our job to make daily decisions if the city wants to buy a box of Kleenex. I live in Xenia. I care about the community. That’s why I’m on council.”
Louderback later pointed out that by voting on Thursday council members were unable to do due diligence with research.
“I’m going to continue to represent the citizens of Xenia,” he said. “Fails or not, you haven’t heard the last of me. Come budget year this January I’m going to do things a little bit different. I’d like more of the public to get involved in the budget process. Management has much too control over council and we have a council-management form of government. I think the voters put us in office to oversee their tax dollars.”
Councilman John Caupp and Louderback voted to keep the freeze in place while Jeanne Mills abstained.
In other business:
• Trees hundreds of years old and some that survived the 1974 tornado were among those designated as 2014 Heritage Trees on Thursday.
The Heritage Tree Program, which began in 2011, was developed to recognize, honor and foster appreciation of trees on public or private property for unique history, size, shape, beauty and specie. Mills nominated 16 trees for designation which include a burr oak in the 500 block of Sutton Drive approximately 300 years old, and a common bald cypress, approximately 100 years old n the 50 block of East Church Street that survived the tornado.
“There are really some gorgeous trees,” Mills said. “Some of the trees were in the path of the tornadoes and they lived.”
The owners of the trees will be invited to the Arbor Day event on April 26 at Xenia Station and will be presented with certificates. The trees will be identified with plaques.
The city’s tree committee, which is a subcommittee of the Board for Recreation, Arts and Cultural Activities, is planning a heritage tree walking tour.
• Also on Thursday, council gave Merriman consent to participate in the Ohio Department of Transportation’s bridge inspection program, which will save the city $2,400 annually.
The city is required to inspect it’s 12 bridges annually and the new ODOT program will allow the city to have that done at no charge. Participation in this program could allow the city to work on other projects.
“Through this cooperation with the state, we are more likely to receive future grants for future bridge repair projects,” Merriman said.