Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Council and Mayor Wrangle Over Budget Process
The Common Council held an unusual addendum to their set of budget meetings because of an unusual budget process adopted in an unusually stressful budget year.
The meeting, which was held, ostensibly, to explore the process by which the mayor created his budget, and by which he negotiated potential concessions from a coalition of city unions, shed more heat than light on the topic.
As a symptom of a budget being created in a very difficult budget-year, which happens also to be an election year, the meeting was rife with political undercurrents.
The Common Council, which has been a target of criticism by the mayor and unions, for their handling of current budget, exploited the workshop as a way to turn the criticism back on the mayor, and to provide their perspective on issues expressed by the mayor in his budget meetings with the public.
One thing every member of the Council found it important to say was that they appreciated the effort of the union coalition to work hard to find areas where savings and concessions could be made.
Commissioner Gerry Daley fired the first salvo, accusing the mayor of presenting the Council with a budget which did not contain important details.
"I don't know how we as a a Council can work with a budget where that information is not readily available," Daley said.
He went further, stating that the proposed budget would eliminate 6 police positions, 13 teacher positions, eliminate swimming at Crystal Lake and curtail some senior activities.
Council membr Phil Pessina rose to Mayor Sebastian Giuliano's defense making it clear that the teaching positions could only be determined by a decision of the Board of Education.
Giuliano, for his part, explained and reiterated consistently throughout the meeting that his budget was a recommended budget, and that, in the end, the Common Council was the chief fiduciary agent for the city, and that any decisions to cut services or programs, or add them back in, is a Common Council decision. But...
"If the Council doesn't approve (the concessions made with unions) everybody goes back to where they were," he argued. "And $1 million in concessions go away."
Among the facts that became clear in the contentious give and take is that a coalition of city unions agreed on a plan that includes some concessions (furlough days, higher co-pays for some), and some recommendations (eliminating swimming at Crystal Lake, requiring adjusted payment for summer camp). (EDITOR'S CORRECTION) The council is free to reject the recommendations, but must accept all four parts of the concessions offered in order for the concessions to remain in place.
"If we're going to take A," Council member Vinny Loffredo simplified. "Then B must be part of it."
The coalition package also extends a "no-layoff" clause for union members through 2011, when it currently ends in 2010.
Loffredo suggested that the concession package contained fewer concessions than might be expected, trading layoffs and pay freezes for furlough days, while creating an additional benefit for the union.
"We're trying to deal with a budget for 2010," he said. "But we're setting up conditions that could have an effect on the city if there were more dire conditions in coming years."
Giuliano contends that the budget proposal would save $1 million dollars if enacted. Daley countered that there would still be a 4% tax increase.
"What do taxpayers get for the 4% increase," he asked the mayor.
"We'll provide them with the essential services they get now - public safety, infrastructure. We'll keep the parks open. We'll keep the schools open."
By meeting's end, it was clear that the Democratic members of the Common Council were most unhappy with the process by which Mayor Giuliano gathered information, negotiated with unions and created a budget.
Democratic members took the opportunity to complain to the mayor about a non-meeting he held on January 21 and to castigate him for publicizing the fact that Democratic Council members refused to attend the meeting. They also chided him for portraying the Council as fiscally irresponsible in a series of budget meetings the mayor held with the public. They criticized the inclusion of inflammatory language in the "side letter" or memorandum of understanding with the union. They accused him of claiming savings for positions outside of his purview. And they claimed that he lacked vision in his boast that he was streamlining government.
"There's a tone being set," Loffredo noted. "It's very disturbing. We've got hard work to do with this budget without taking cheap shots."
Giuliano defended his negotiations with the unions, and repeatedly explained that, in the end, the Council would have to consider his suggestions and make their own decisions.
On Tuesday, the public is invited to provide their input to the budget process in Council Chambers.