Stamford’s Board of Finance Digs Into Simmons Budget, Eyes Cost Savings From Pay Increases


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STAMFORD – It’s roll-up-your-sleeves time for the six citizens elected to be the city’s fiscal watch dogs.

Board of Finance members have begun digging into Mayor Caroline Simmons’ $685.4 million budget proposal for the city and school district.

Simmons’ 2024-25 spending plan is 5.5 percent more than this year’s budget. So finance board members met Monday to gather additional information as they prepare to decide the funding requests that department heads will bring before them starting this week.

The amount of money “the city is proposing to spend to run its operations in the next fiscal year … is a really big number, much larger than we usually see,” the board chair, Richard Freedman, told his colleagues. “So I went through the budget book to see how it got that large.”

He listed the drivers of the top operating expense increases: 

  • $14.4 million more in employee wages, a result of settling long-overdue union contracts that required funding retroactive raises

  • $1 million to fund seven new positions in the 911 emergency center

  • $997,000 for increased garbage hauling costs

  • $976,000 to pay for new software and technology consultants

  • $743,000 for police Tasers and cameras

  • $730,000 for eight new positions in the fire department. 

But Freedman told the finance board that he learned good news from a discussion with the tax assessor. 

Expenses – and ultimately taxes – are offset by growth in the Grand List, the value of all the taxable property in the city. The portion that lists value from new construction increased .8 percent over last year, Freedman found.

It’s enough to offset some of the increase in operating expenses and reduce Simmons’ projected property tax hike from nearly 5 percent to about 4.2 percent, Freedman said.

And that’s before the Board of Finance, then the Board of Representatives, make their cuts, he said.

Finance board members Monday night were eyeing “upgrades” – employee salary boosts outside of the cost-of-living increases and step increases written into union contracts.

“The city is not contractually obligated to upgrade your position, and that’s why we have to talk about it. There are some really big upgrades,” Freedman said.

“There are a lot of them,” board member Laura Burwick said.

Board Vice Chair Mary Lou Rinaldi said a number of the upgrades were given to employees in the tax and controller’s offices, which didn’t produce the city’s 2022 audit until a year after it was due, and now is holding up completion of the 2023 audit.

The delay cost the city an additional $1 million in payments to the state-mandated outside auditor contracted to do the audit.

“At the same time people are getting salary upgrades, they are not doing the jobs we pay them to do,” Rinaldi said. “Last year the upgrades amounted to $250,000. We cut that by 50 percent, but now I see that no lesson was learned. This stuff has to be looked at; we can’t sustain these kinds of salary increases.”

Besides the tax and controller’s offices, the budget lists salary upgrades in the Office of Operations, the Department of Engineering, and the Department of Human Resources, Rinaldi said. Finance board members said they want to know whether there are more.

They also asked the administration for clarity on some of the revenue projections.

“Building permit fees are expected to go up $2.3 million. We’re going to need an explanation of why this is,” Freedman said. 

He also wants to know why the budget projects that tax revenue from the sale of cannabis in the city will be $300,000 more than estimated in this year’s budget, Freedman said, and why it projects a $2 million increase in interest earned from city funds.

Burwick asked why engineering and maintenance contracts that went over budget this year are projected to cost less next year, and the same for overtime costs in garbage collection and disposal.

“I see that utility costs were $205,000 last year and we’re budgeting $159,000 for next year. I’m seeing this in a bunch of city buildings,” Burwick said. “Is something going on that electric and gas costs are going down?”

Member Dennis Mahoney said the finance board asked department heads to come in with one-page summaries listing items that can be cut from their funding requests. He hopes the administration takes it seriously, Mahoney said.

“I had a conversation with someone involved in this process and they said, ‘What are you worried about? This increase is not going to be more than the increase that New Canaan has and the increase that Darien has,’” Mahoney said. “I thought that was a little tone deaf. Maybe people in New Canaan and Darien can afford those tax increases, but we have a much greater responsibility because a lot of people in Stamford can’t. There can’t be a bandwagon effect that everybody is going to tax increases of 4 percent or 5 percent, so we can, too.”

This month the New Canaan Board of Finance approved a 5.2 percent budget increase. The Town Council will vote on it in April. 

The Darien Board of Selectmen last month recommended a 5.1 percent increase. Final approval is in May. 

The U.S. Census shows that the median household income in New Canaan and Darien is about $250,000 a year. In Stamford it’s $100,700.

Mahoney said he’s concerned about the Board of Education budget request for $20 million more than last year. A member of the school board “stated in open session that they do not care about the city’s credit rating, but it’s beholden on us to care,” he said.

The school board funded jobs with federal pandemic relief money that runs out June 30, and now is asking the city to pick up the cost of the positions.

“They have had years to mitigate their problems and they have done nothing,” Mahoney said. “Now it’s up to us to find that solution.”

Rinaldi said after the meeting that the salary upgrades have to be justified.

“If a person is making $170,000 or $180,000 a year, why are we giving an upgrade? The people who have to pay for it are not getting those increases,” Rinaldi said. “Did the job description change? Was Human Resources involved? Did the Personnel Commission sign off on it? There are a lot of squirrelly numbers that we need to know more about.”

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.