STAMFORD – At budget time, the Board of Finance gets the first cut.
On Monday the six elected fiscal watchdogs reduced Mayor Caroline Simmons’ requested 3.7 percent budget increase to a 2.5 percent increase.
But there’s a long way to go before Stamford property owners learn how much bigger their taxes bills will be starting July 1.
Members of the Board of Representatives make their cuts next. Then officials must decide how much money to put in the contingency fund for 2023-24 and estimate revenues before the finance board sets the tax rate on May 15.
But more than just the budget will determine how high taxes will go.
Property owners will have to see how their tax rates are affected by last year’s state-mandated property revaluation. Values skyrocketed when buyers and renters fled New York City and other congested places during the COVID-19 pandemic, driving up home prices in Connecticut.
According to Simmons’ office, the revaluation increased the value of multi-family homes in Stamford an average of 36 percent; single-family homes 25 percent; and condominiums 14 percent.
That could result in tax hikes of 6 percent or more, officials have said. Taxes typically increase about half that much.
City hit harder than schools
The plight of taxpayers came up multiple times Monday as the finance board sliced $7.6 million from Simmons’ spending proposal of nearly $649 million.
They cut most of the money – $6.3 million – from the city side of the budget, even though spending is about evenly split between the city and the school district.
They cut only $1.25 million from the schools, though some finance board members tried to go deeper.
Board chair Richard Freedman Freedman, a Democrat, said the Board of Education merits a small cut because the school budget is “about as low as you can get – there are no additions of staff.”
Further, Freedman said, “the fiscal cliff is in next year’s budget, and this is, in part, planning for that.”
The school district is facing an $8.8 million deficit, or “fiscal cliff.” It was created when the superintendent’s office used one-time COVID-19 federal relief funds to fill 120 positions. The money runs out in June 2024 and, to keep people in the jobs, school administrators must come up with the money.
Finance board member Dennis Mahoney said that, in a year of revaluation, inflation and other economic stress brought on by the pandemic, the Board of Education should have done a better job with its budget. School board members approved a hefty 4.3 percent increase for a $315 million 2023-24 budget.
Mahoney, a Republican, proposed that the school board budget be cut by $5.4 million to minimize the tax increase.
“I have not seen the (Board of Education) in any way attempt to work with the Board of Finance on restraining expenses. I think we have to inflict some discipline on behalf of the taxpayers,” Mahoney said. “This is not a cut – it’s still a 2.5 percent increase.”
Four finance board members rejected Mahoney’s proposal. Only he and fellow Republican J.R. McMullen voted for it.
Board member Laura Burwick, a Democrat, said she hopes the school district will get state funding to help with the fiscal cliff but, if not, “the more this budget gets cut, the harder that cliff becomes for next year.”
But Democratic finance board Vice Chair Mary Lou Rinaldi proposed increasing the cut slightly to $1.5 million. Her proposal failed. The board then passed Freedman’s $1.25 million cut.
Mahoney said it’s “woefully inadequate.”
“I think that, when we get to the mill rate setting and we look at the numbers and we see the tax increase, we’re going to rue the day we didn’t take more of a responsible position with the Board of Education budget,” Mahoney said.
No new positions
The board moved to the city budget, where the biggest cuts were to the police and fire departments.
Rinaldi proposed cutting $500,000 out of the $43.6 million police budget.
“They’re getting new officers … that should reduce some of the overtime,” Rinaldi said. “I think this cut can be easily absorbed.”
That passed unanimously.
Freedman proposed a $350,000 cut to the fire department’s $41.5 million budget “under the same rationale” as the police department cut. That, too, passed unanimously.
Freedman also proposed – and the board unanimously passed – a $2.5 million cut to funding for police retirement benefits. But it is less of a reduction and more of a savings that will result from a switch to a less expensive state health care plan, Freedman said.
Beyond the police and fire cuts, Freedman said “very few new positions will be accommodated in this budget. It’s just not a good year for adding a significant number of new positions.”
The board voted to eliminate a slew of new positions in the Simmons budget: $146,000 for a divisional finance manager in the controller’s office; $68,000 for a junior budget analyst in the Office of Policy & Management; $55,000 for a light-duty mechanic in the vehicle maintenance division; $102,000 for a facility maintenance supervisor in the Office of Operations; $110,000 for a building inspector; $117,000 for an associate engineer; $102,000 for a housing coordinator; $115,000 for a career development leadership training specialist and $85,000 for a junior generalist in the Human Resources department; and $122,000 for an additional project manager in the Office of Economic Development.
The board then voted to cut all the new positions requested to reorganize the 911 emergency communications center and staff it with civilians instead of police officers – a total of $652,000.
“This funding is to hire five supervisors and two additional staff to answer phones,” Freedman said. “This came to us late in the process with precious little information … we got almost no call data or scheduling data on this. It’s a core function of public safety and I would be happy to entertain it later in the year, but we need more data.”
A good health budget
The board, on the other hand, praised Health Director
Jody Bishop-Pullan, who Burwick said “realigned her staff to meet her needs and saved the city $20,000.”
Finance board members said they want city and school officials to employ that kind of thinking, and used budget cuts to send the message.
Burwick moved to cut Simmons’ salary account by $100,000 because 24 positions were changed from one job classification to another. The reclassifications were used to increase salaries by a total of $250,000, Burwick said.
The cut would demonstrate that the board is concerned about “the volume of reclassifications and the magnitude of the salary increases,” Burwick said.
Rinaldi moved to cut the entire $250,000.
“This was done outside the formal budget process … it was found by the board doing its own research,” Rinaldi said. “You cannot increase 24 salaries like this.”
It’s not “in the spirit of how we should be doing operating budgets in this day and age,” Democratic board member Geoff Alswanger said. The Board of Finance and the Board of Representatives must approve salary increases, Alswanger said.
“This is just too many positions being dealt with this way,” he said. “I really hope we change that practice and certainly include the boards.”
Several of the employees whose job descriptions were changed were already earning $100,000, Rinaldi said.
“One of the positions has a $12,000 increase and another has a $32,000 increase. These upgrades don’t happen in the private sector,” said Rinaldi, whose career is in human resources. “This is just poor HR policy.”
Freedman said some of the jobs were upgraded because the city was having problems filling them, but “for this number of positions for existing staff, it is … a circumvention of budget policy.”
Mahoney said he favored Rinaldi’s $250,000 cut as a way for the board to say “we will not accept the way you do this going forward.” The lesser $100,000 cut “is watered down,” Mahoney said.
“It’s just a slap on the wrist.”
But the board voted to reject the bigger cut, and passed the smaller one.
McMullen didn’t like it.
“Our job is to set a budget the residents can live with, and the executive’s job is to fit within that budget,” McMullen said. “That’s how it works in the rest of the world. I don’t know why it doesn’t work here.”
Board members also voted to cut six items, a total of $2.45 million, in the mayor’s proposed $91 million capital budget.