In overwhelmingly passing a new $443 million city budget, aldermen also got started on the next budget—voting to start early in looking for long-term cuts in city spending demanded by citizen watchdogs.
The Board of Aldermen voted 25 to 4 at Tuesday night’s meeting to approve the new FY07-08 budget, imposing a tax rate of 42.21 mills. Citizen watchdogs who poured into City Hall to witness a final budget vote didn’t see much additional short-time relief, but they did see measures put in place to manage long-term costs.
The new FY07-08 budget represents an increase of 6.54 percent or $27.2 million over the budget for FY06-07. The new mill rate is adjusted to reflect a five-year phase-in of property revaluations.
“We have made every effort, I believe successfully, to limit the amount we spend against the services that our citizens demand and deserve,” said Aldermanic President Carl Goldfield in a statement after the vote.
“Today’s decision is a hard one for everyone,” said Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. in a statement after the three-hour special budget meeting Tuesday. “Despite being a difficult budget year, we can celebrate the fact that we are able to freeze property taxes for seniors, implement a phase-in for all other taxpayers and strengthen public safety resources, all while doing our very best to minimize the financial impact on tax paying residents.” (Click here, here and here for stories in which he justifies his choices).
A series of last-minute proposed cuts met little success Tuesday, but a plan to aim for long-term savings was put in place.
Westville Alderman Sergio Rodriguez, who chairs the finance committee, said the board did its best to preserve the “delicate balance between ensuring that our property tax payers are not over burdened and meeting the city’s fiscal needs.”
Aldermen agreed to one specific cost-cutting measure: Delaying the new class of fire recruits by another three months at a savings of about $320,000. They also agreed to continue a contract to buy energy on the open market—a measure whose savings are not predictable, but which could save the city millions. A series of last-minute attempts to further whittle the budget down on the aldermanic floor—including slashing the Board of Education budget by $2 million—failed.
The most significant amendment that passed in the meeting concerned not what small items could be trimmed, but how to get a handle on soaring costs in the future.
The amendment, introduced by Rodriguez (pictured), calls for a more aggressive agenda of reform over the way the city handles the major driving forces behind the ever-expanding budget—primarily health care, pensions and debt service.
Suggestions include restructuring employee benefits when city employee contracts come up: Considering a switch in pensions plan from defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan; searching for health care savings; and considering reform of overtime, longevity and sick time arrangements.
“The real cost drivers are the result of long-term contracts that cannot simply be unwound,” said Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek, who works at the Yale investments office investments and worked on the proposal. Employee contracts are negotiated between unions and the mayor’s office, then go to an aldermanic vote. Shalek called for aldermen to make “clear policy decisions” on employee benefits before negotiations take place, in attempt to guide the process.
The amendment also calls for a method the school system has already adopted as a core philosophy—performance-based, data-driven learning. Aldermen call for restructuring the way the budget’s written to a “performance-based” format where departmental efficiency becomes more transparent.
For example, said Shalek: The parks department budget would be broken down by services, so a reader could see exactly how much was spent on tree trimming, and how many trees were trimmed, and adjust resources accordingly, instead of just copying the budget from the year before. Achieving such documentation may mean a short-term investment in better IT tools, such as a municipal services hotline.
“We must do a better job documenting the results,” said Shalek— “making sure the decisions we make are based on those results, not just on decisions we made in history.”
Last year, aldermen got cracking on the budget in July, and as a result of joint talks with the administration, agreed to buy energy on the open market, at a savings of “millions,” Shalek said. Aldermen Tuesday agreed the move had been successful —they voted unanimously to continue the authority of the Energy Procurement Committee to negotiate procurement of natural gas and electricity for the period of July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008.
The Rodriguez amendment, which received unanimous approval Tuesday, calls for a mayoral report on the above matters and other long-term cost-savings ideas, with “concrete proposals for reform,” in September, so the process of long-term planning can begin.
Late-Game Slimming Flops
Noting that proposal gave taxpayers “no immediate savings,” Hill Alderman Jorge Perez (pictured) announced a package of short-term cuts totaling $3.6 million.
The biggest cut—slashing $2 million from the Board of Education—failed by a 7 to 18 vote, with those who work for the Board of Ed—Aldermen Katrina Jones, Charles A. Blango and Michelle Edmonds-Sepulveda—abstaining. Opponents charged Perez’s proposals, unlike others’, were given last-minute on the aldermanic floor, giving aldermen insufficient time to examine them or understand the impact the cuts would have.
“I do not know whether these proposals are desirable or not—the reason is, this is the first time we have learned of them tonight,” responded East Rock Alderman Ed Mattison, who voted against each of Perez’s proposals. “I want to say yes to so much of this, but I don’t think we have justification” for the last-minute cuts, agreed East Rock Alderman Roland Lemar.
Some alders, including Alderwomen Ina Silverman and Erin Sturgis-Pascale, stood up and cautioned against the cuts to the Board of Ed, because the impact was not detailed, and state funding still not secured.
Dwight Alderwoman Joyce Chen supported all of Perez’s ideas. “The proportional impact on education will be much less than the proportional impact that taxpayers will feel,” she said of the Board of Ed cut.
Perez said while he had missed a non-binding deadline last week for aldermen to submit proposals so that others could read them ahead of time, he had the right to make amendments on the floor, and was just “plagiarizing” ideas already discussed at the finance committee.
Many members backed him up. “We have to be willing to be flexible because ultimately we’re serving the public,” said Chen.
The rest of Perez’s package proposed cutting funds to vacant positions—those that had been newly added or for which no suitable candidates had yet been found. Another proposal was to not pay the police department three months’ worth of salaries that had been slated for new recruits. The department had requested funds for 45 new recruits but was unable to fill all positions with suitable candidates. A new class currently being recruited would not start until April anyway, Perez argued, so the money would not have been used, and the proposal would not deplete police services nor take anyone’s salary away.
Bishop Woods Alderman Gerald Antunes, a former city detective, supported the measure, which would have saved the city $428,000.
Perez’s package was split up into two amendments—one slashing the Board of Education budget, and the other proposing personnel savings of $1.6 million. The latter failed at a 12 to 17 vote.
After Perez’s package failed, an effort was made to push parts of it through as single amendments. Antunes proposed delaying funds to the police recruit class (as described above) and delaying funds to new civilian posts by three months because suitable candidates had not been found. Neither would lose the city any services, Antunes argued. Both proposals failed by votes of 12 to 15.
East Shore Alderman Al Paolillo suggested Perez’s idea of delaying the fire class by three months, because of controversy around the test and because the increase in overtime, would not cost the city extra, since firemen are paid straight time for overtime work. That idea passed, with a 19 to 6 vote, saving the city $320,206.
Paolillo made a second proposal to cut another $100,000 from the subsidy to Tweed-New Haven airport, from $800,000 to $700,000. “This can’t and shouldn’t be an allocation in our budget made in perpetuity,” he argued. The measure failed by a margin of 13 to 14.
The Big Vote
At the end of the day, only $320,206 was shaved off the budget Tuesday, in addition to the $1.9 million the finance committee had agreed to cut at its June 30 meeting (click here to read a story on those cuts).
The mayor’s original total $445.2 million budget was slimmed down to $442,982,888, by Rodriguez’ calculations. In all, aldermen’s efforts dropped the mayor’s proposed 44.85 mill rate to 42.21 mills.
The total budget received four “no” votes, from Aldermen Andrea Jackson-Brooks, Dolores Col√É¬≥n, Michael Smart and an emphatic Robert Lee. All others voted yes, except Downtown Alderwoman Bitsie Clark, who was absent for the evening. Aldermen Katrina Jones, Charles Blango and Michelle Edmonds-Sepulveda abstained from voting on the education portion of the budget.
Jeffrey Kerekes (pictured at the top of this story at left) was one of a half-dozen diehard citizen budget watchdogs who stayed for the entire three-hour hearing. Kerekes led a team of citizens who created their own budget proposal with alternative ideas, but few concrete proposals for specific cuts. Their main contribution: Getting the city to eliminate a “water cooler” budget, so city employees now have to drink from the tap or fountain.
“The cuts they were planning were not very substantial—I’m not happy with that,” said Kerekes, who took notes on each alderman’s vote. He was particularly displeased that certain elements of Perez’s package, to cut vacant positions that the city has had trouble filling, did not pass. “That’s ridiculous they’re putting the money in, and there’s no one there.”
Fellow budget watchdog Ken Joyner was skeptical of Rodriguez’ long-term planning amendment, which he called “redundant,” because the mayor is already required to file financial reports on overtime and healthcare costs.
Kerekes said his group, New Haven Citizen’ Action Network, would stick with the process as aldermen move to the long-term planning process. Would long-term cost-cutting efforts make the short-term increase easier to handle?
Kerekes had cautious optimism: “If something comes out of it, then yes.”