Salem discuses purpose of contingency fund

SALEM — City council’s Committee of the Whole, which includes all seven voting council members, agreed Tuesday to spell out and simplify the process for using money in the council contigency fund.

Councilman Brian Whitehill, who chairs the Committee of the Whole, summed it up by saying they need to “focus on the purposes, not the buckets,” referring to a previous understanding that each council member had a share in the pot which was created from oil and gas lease proceeeds.

When the fund was first established, the idea was that if a council member had a worthwhile project in their ward, they could promote it to the other council members using their chunk of the total. Projects had to have a lasting impact and benefitand had to get approval from a majority of council.

Where the process became gray was the discussion regarding how much each member had expended or had left. No individual projects had been done yet, but council did use contingency funds toward the new Salem welcome signs.

Councilwoman Cyndi Baronzzi Dickey said she didn’t think they wanted to be all fighting over a section of the fund.

“We should be doing this for the entire city, not pitting ward against ward,” she said.

Councilman Andrew Null, who covers the entire city as an At Large representative, questioned how that would work, dividing up the money, since the At Large members cover all four wards. Councilman Geoff Goll also questioned the division, asking why they couldn’t just simplify it by saying a member of council can bring an idea to the Committee of the Whole. It would be up to all of council on whether to spend the money. He also said the money should be in an interest-bearing account with the interest placed back in the fund, but Whitehill later said he learned that can’t be done.

City Law Director Brooke Zellers said any interest would have to go to the general fund and would then have to be appropriated to the fund, with city Auditor Betty Brothers explaining that the general fund money is not invested. She said they’re always reviewing whether to change to an interest-bearing account, but at the last meeting with the banks, they were told they would pay more in bank fees than what they would make in interest so it was more advantageous to not do it.

The fund contains $124,000 currently, Whitehill said.

He agreed to clean up the language and present it to the law director for an ordinance.