Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Monday's Budget Hearing

As Common Council meetings go, Monday night's budget hearing was brief, clocking in at just three hours.

The Council heard from eight city departments, posing questions about the effect that the Mayor's proposed cuts would have on their ability to do business.

The first few departments were dispatched quickly -- the Town Clerk's office, the Probate Court, the Registrar of Voters, Consumer Protection and Veteran's Affairs went by largely without controversy. Some of the proposed cuts were criticized as short-sighted. For example, the Mayor's budget eliminates the cost of a primary or referendum, with the understanding that the Registrar would have to ask the Council for an appropriation in the likely event of a special election.

Another sticking point was the funding methodology for the Probate Court. As a multi-town district, the state dictates that each municipality pays according to the size of their grand list. This year, although the cost of running the court did not change significantly, Middletown's portion went up 12.6%, from $34,000 to $39,000 because the growth of our grand list (the value of all the real estate in the town) went up at a higher rate than our neighboring towns. This increase didn't sit well with Council members, but they accepted that it was out of their control.

Middletown Area Transit is a more complex operation, and director Tom Cheeseman faced extensive questioning. Ridership has grown in this economy; locally, it's up 2% more than the national increase, and state and federal grants will replace the City's fleet of buses over the next 18 months. Council members were hopeful that savings could be found with more fuel-efficient vehicles (turns out we already have "clean diesel" and the more hi-tech green technologies have complicated maintenance issues) or regionalization of mechanics and technicians (Tom has advocated for this but hasn't had any takers). The Mayor has suggested that the transit district cut $40,000 from their budget by getting union concessions, but the director was aiming for a much more modest $6,000 savings in labor, as they have just entered a new contract with Teamsters 671. Tom will be updating the Council on where he would try to find the additional savings, mentioning that he was studying fare increases and a possible 60-minute cycle (instead of the usual 40-minute) on one of his routes.

The prize for congeniality went to Russell Library's director, Art Meyers, who absorbed the Mayor's $76,000 suggested cut with a measure of grace. "We are residents of the city too, and we understand the financial situation this year." If I didn't know Art was such a nice guy, I might suspect him of reverse psychology, as several Council members took up the gauntlet and argued that the Library is vitally important during this economic crisis. The idea of restoring Sunday hours at the Library was a favorite of Tom Serra's, but Art was clear that it wouldn't be possible without somehow getting more funding. The library already pursues a wide range of outside funds, with all of their programming paid by the Russell Library Company, rather than the City, and they are looking for a CDBG grant to fund their free "Jobs and Careers" program. If the Council members plan to up the Library funding, they didn't give a hint, but there was a sense of outrage that the Library stands to drop 2% from the current year, at a time when all their numbers for attendance and circulation are going up.

The tiny Youth Services Bureau (with 2 full-time staff) faces a cut of their entire Summer Work Program, which funds 6-week summer jobs in city departments for about 35 local teenagers. Youth Services Director Justin Carbonella reminded the Council that many people with careers in local government -- like himself -- got their start in the Summer Work Program. He advocated for at least keeping the program in the budget for $1 (instead of the requested $57,250) with the hope that next year would bring better times.

The Board of Ed was the evening's headliner. As Councilman Bauer noted, they brought the "largest posse" of the night, with Superintendent Michael Frechette, four Board members and eight administrators in attendance.

The Mayor is proposing $1.4 million less than the Board of Ed has requested. Councilman Daley pointed out that the City has recently negotiated an insurance savings that amounts to about $700,000 for the school district, so the proposed cuts are really more like $600,000, which the Superintendent conceded. But generally, the Superintendent stuck to his message that his budget was already leaner than it should be, from an educational perspective. For the budget they submitted in early March, the Board has already proposed cutting 13 teachers, 4 supervisors, an assistant superintendent and various other positions and services. They have not publicly said where they might find an additional 2% in cuts. In a memo to Board and Council members, Frechette did make a few recommendations of other possible savings, such as switching to bi-weekly paychecks by direct deposit instead of weekly paychecks delivered by courier. As Councilman Daley asked the room, other than municipalities, who gets paid every week anymore?

The topic of union concessions from the teachers came up repeatedly. Superintendent Frechette indicated that "Hartford", meaning the union leadership I suppose, was advocating a wait-and-see position rather than concessions. Until that changes, he doesn't expect to see budget savings from union concessions. Councilman Pessina was quick to point out that teachers in other towns are beginning to compromise to avoid layoffs and larger classes -- Pessina hopes that will happen here.

The prospect of larger class sizes is unpleasant for everyone, but Frechette indicated that personnel is the main place he would have to cut if he is required to find another $1.4 million in savings. As I have noted, the proposed budget already contains an increase in class sizes: the current elementary classes average 18.23 students per class. With the cut of 13 teachers, that would rise to 20.07 -- but because enrollment is so unpredictable, that means class sizes anywhere from 15 to 25 students (note that these are my calculations from the budget, and the district has not committed to a maximum class size). On the other hand, Frechette promised that any money returned to the budget through concessions or other savings would go to saving teacher positions and lowering class sizes at the elementary level.

Another hot topic was the $2.2 million insurance fund balance that the Board realized last summer. The Superintendent tried to satisfy the Council's appetite for an explanation on why the Board of Ed decided to use those funds for "one-shot costs" instead of returning it to the City, but there are still clearly some hard feelings on that score. In the coming year, the Superintendent is predicting a more modest $500,000 fund balance.

The recurring theme of the evening (from the Democrats on the Council) was the concern that the Mayor himself had not sat with the departments to discuss how to trim costs - instead the department heads met with Tina Gomes and/or Geen Thazampallath. Although it seemed that some Council members found the Mayor's cuts unfeasible, there was no discussion on how to put revenue back into the budget to restore some of those cuts. In the meantime, for many departments, there will be more sharpening of pencils and back-and-forth with the Council, right up until the May 15th vote on the city budget.

At Monday's budget hearing, the public was not allowed to speak, and in fact only two members of the public bothered to attend. On April 28th, however, you might want to bring a blanket and pillow down to City Hall, because that's the public's first opportunity to comment on the budget.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate this well-balanced report of the Council meeting, without attitude and opinion. Thanking this reporter for her good service to the public, as we know this work is voluntary.

Anonymous said...

Is the BOE audited by a CPA firm and if so are the results shared with the city council?

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the first comment. Thanks so very much for your reports...I find them the best coverage around.