City Rep. Monica Di Costanzo ticked off page numbers to the sound of Fiscal Committee members flipping through the budget book.
“Sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three,” Di Costanzo said, reading through the 555 pages and checking to see whether Board of Representatives committee members at city hall – and those watching on Zoom – raised a hand to propose a cut.
“Page 88, Department of Operations, road maintenance,” Di Costanzo, the committee co-chair, continued. No hands went up. “Page 129, beaches … page 149, traffic analyst position …”
Representatives Monday night proposed few cuts at first, even for the big-ticket items – capital expenses and the biggest of all, schools.
Mayor Caroline Simmons asked for roughly $308 million for the school system. Last week the Board of Finance, which takes the first swing at the mayoral budget, cut it to about $304 million. The Fiscal Committee Monday left it at that.
It was the same for capital expenses. Simmons asked for $58.5 million for roads, sidewalks, park repairs, and other projects. The Board of Finance cut $5.7 million. Members of the Fiscal Committee proposed no further cuts.
Then the committee began picking through the city’s operating budget. They came up with about $940,000 in savings, which members will recommend when the full Board of Representatives takes the final swing at the budget May 3.
Committee members targeted large salaries, the size of management staffs, and non-city agencies funded by taxpayers. They said they hope to send messages with some of the cuts – well-paid city managers must prove their worth; and non-city agencies should be less dependent on public money and pay more attention to discrepancies between high-earning executives and low-wage workers.
The committee voted, for example, to cut police funding for three of eight captain positions.
The department hasn’t had eight captains in decades, city Rep. Nina Sherwood said. There were six, but one retired a year ago and was not replaced.
“They have restructured the department around five captains,” Sherwood said. “So I think they’re going to be OK.”
A number of representatives abstained from voting, saying they want confirmation from police officials that five captains are enough, but the committee approved the cut. If it passes on May 3, it will save taxpayers $266,420.
City Rep. Sean Boeger proposed cutting $156,924 from the law department budget. That’s the salary of an attorney who will be hired to focus on land-use cases – the law department said it’s because of all the development in Stamford – so that amount should be cut from funding for professional consultants, Boeger said. The law department often hires consultants to handle land-use cases, he said.
“For me, this cut is about checks and balances. We’ve seen the professional services line go up by hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last five years,” Boeger said. “I think this line needs more oversight.”
That would happen if the law department spends all of the money budgeted for professional consultants and has to come before the board to request more, and explain why, Boeger said.
“We need to see where the money is being spent,” he said.
City Rep. Eric Morson said cutting an amount equal to the salary of a new attorney is arbitrary.
“It’s not a one-to-one offset,” said Morson, who wanted more information from finance officials. “Short of that information, I can’t support a cut.”
But the motion passed.
Representatives then moved to cut $132,540 from the full-time salary line of the Office of Economic Development.
The mayor’s office just hired a new economic development director, Loren Nadres, for $180,843, which is $21,790 more than what the previous director was paid, representatives said.
“I would like the director to have a year to see what direction they are moving in before we add a third person to this department,” Sherwood said.
City Rep. Susan Nabel agreed. During budget hearings, she “asked the economic development director what the metrics were for the position,” Nabel said.
“I am wary of a situation where the expectations are not clear,” she said. “I’m not sure what the return is on this position for this year.”
The committee concurred, voting to cut the $132,540.
Another proposal came with a call. Boeger said he wanted to cut $65,000 from the $1.3 million Stamford Museum & Nature Center budget because the organization pays its part-time employees only $13 an hour while the executive director earns more than $222,000.
“The Darien Nature Center pays their part-timers $22 an hour. Our mayor is increasing salaries, 7 percent, 14 percent, pushing for equity,” Boeger said. “My message to the Stamford Museum and Nature Center is, ‘Pay your part-time employees a livable wage.’”
Nabel said the center provides “a good health-care plan with dental and vision, and a 401K” for its full-time employees.
“That organization has a board of directors and it’s up to them to limit compensation to executives,” Nabel said. “It’s in my district, so maybe I can have a conversation. It’s communication more than a cut, in my opinion.”
But the committee narrowly voted to pass the $25,000 cut, and the message.
The committee then rejected an equal cut to Simmons’ request for $190,000 to support the Downtown Special Services District, which taxes its members to fund events that promote the downtown. Boeger said he proposed the cut “to quell the ever-increasing subsidy and promotion of private business.”
Morson and most of the committee disagreed, saying the annual big-balloon parade, band performances and other events are “having more and more of a positive effect. Business is thriving and I think we should continue to support them. If the city had to foot 100 percent of the bill, we would not have these events.”
The committee’s biggest cut recommendation involved the Mill River Collaborative, a nonprofit group that uses Tax Increment Financing to fund the renovation and expansion of downtown Stamford’s “central park.”
Simmons requested $700,200, which the Board of Finance cut by $25,000. Boeger wanted to cut all of the remaining $675,200.
The TIF allows the collaborative to share city tax revenue from properties surrounding Mill River Park under the premise that the improvements raise the value of the properties, which then are taxed more. The city and collaborative split the increase evenly.
Boeger said the TIF brings more money into Mill River Park than the city funds all other parks combined, and the organization should not get a public subsidy.
Committee members said the complex TIF funding mechanism and bond payments need review, but the collaborative has transformed downtown and city support can’t be gutted.
“They have to start standing on their own two feet, but I can’t take the rug out from under them this year,” city Rep. Mary Fedeli said.
The committee approved a $175,200 cut.
Simmons proposed a $638 million budget for 2022-23, with all but $47 million coming from property taxes. It would mean an average tax increase of 1 percent, but nothing is sure until the Board of Representatives makes its final cuts May 3 and the Board of Finance sets a new mill rate May 17.