By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK — When Thomas Karnes accepted the challenge of taking over as mayor of a financially troubled city, he understood that even the best ideas would take a long time before being realized, let alone a priority.
“We still have the state review hanging over our heads,” Karnes said. “Until that happens it’s hard to feel too good about anything.”
Since taking over the helm at city hall in November, Karnes, council members and administrators have focused on housekeeping matters to include committee appointments and confirming a contract for Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Madhu Oberoi, who began serving in that capacity in late 2012 and approved by the DDA last July.
Implementing a plan to attract businesses back to Fort Street remains a priority, Karnes said, although moving forward depends on taking care of old business.
“We’ve handled some difficult things,” Karnes said of the past two months. In December the council heard updates on its request for a state review of its finances, which indicated that progress had been made toward elimination of the city’s long-standing deficit, and agreed to contract terms with firefighters. Also reported was a settlement with Sun Trust Bank and Honeywell Corp., to which the city had defaulted in payments for municipal work.
“We’ve become more efficient in the meetings,” Karnes said. “Settling the lawsuit, the efforts towards different contracts with labor groups … we’re just getting our ducks in a row.”
Karnes said he remained optimistic, although the next annual budget session this summer will likely include a continuation of debt, expected to reveal a $2.5 million shortfall — a daunting amount but less than the $3-million-plus deficit that had been anticipated.
Karnes said he will hold off on having a State of the City address until late March — after next month’s expected session with state financial advisors. Speculation in recent years was of a city headed for emergency management if not bankruptcy, but Karnes said those worst-case scenarios likely will be avoided.
Shoring up the team and foundation, confirming employee contracts and streamlining meetings were, Karnes said, a good start.
“I’m not displeased with how things have went,” Karnes said.
He, elected officials and administrators have plans they’d like to launch, but those await state confirmations that the deficit is en route to elimination.
“I’m happy with our progress,” Karnes said. “If we get these items done they won’t sidetrack us from the main issues. We don’t have a lot of money and we’re looking at bringing in new businesses — that’s a priority — and to make sure the main services continue.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at [email protected])