City council members criticized the introduced budget during a public hearing held on Tuesday evening. Much of the rebuke was aimed at the more than 4-percent tax increase proposed in the fiscal year 2014 budget.
With a 2-percent cap the city will not be able to up the taxes by such a large percentage anytime soon. “It cannot be levied by taxation,” said Anthony Zambrano, the city’s finance director, who gave the presentation on the budget in place of Charles Thomas, who was not able to attend due to a death in the family, according to the city clerk.
Zambrano spent much of his time giving council members vague and deceptive answers when asked if the taxes cannot be levied than how does the administration intend to close a $5,496,071 shortfall. At one point the finance director said, the city is hoping to receive a large $27-million transitional aid, a form of welfare for poor cities, and that will help close the gap.
What is the “likelihood of that happening?” asked Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large. The finance director responded, “Is very small.” Yet a few minutes later Zambrano changed his answer and said the chances were pretty good of the city getting that large sum.
Morris wanted to know what steps have been taken since the initial budget discussion two months ago to reduce it. And it appeared very little was done to reign in the increases. “So no progress has been made?” Morris asked rhetorically.
“What is your plan if we don’t get the $5.5 million from the state?” asked Julio Tavarez, the 5th Ward councilman. Harry Cevallos, the city’s purchasing agent and acting business administrator, said the city can save some money on its health insurance plan by changing providers to reduce premiums. “Just give me a number,” said Tavarez.
“Court collection $500,000,” said Cevallos. And he also mentioned the $100,000 or about the city saved by going to auction to buy power for the municipal buildings. Zambrano mentioned other ways the city can close the gap by saving here and there but none of it added it up to 5-million much less $5.5.
“I have not heard any plans to decreases expenses,” said Rigo Rodriguez, councilman at-large. “We spend money as if we have it in the bank.” Rodriguez wanted Jeffrey Jones, the city’s mayor, to sit at the chamber and talk the budget through in order to work in tandem with the council.
Kenneth McDaniel, councilman at-large, criticized the state in its lateness with the state aid, that often forces budgets to be delayed. The fiscal year for the city starts in June, but it cannot put together its budget because the aid numbers are not announced until some months later. Even in December, the city has yet to learn what amount it will receive in aid, it is going on an estimate of $21,280,000 that the state told it to anticipate. “This is a flawed system from the state down,” said McDaniel.
Andre Sayegh, the 6th Ward councilman, urged officials to take a pay cut to reduce the $241,655,960 budget to size. Sayegh said, Jones should consider following in the footsteps of Andrew Cuomo, and start change at the top by cutting his pay.
The public hearing, during which city residents are given the opportunity to express their likes and dislikes of the budget, saw only two members of the public come out to express their distaste of the budget. Ernest Rucker and David Gilmore, both of whom regularly attend council meetings, expressed their dislike of the budget. “Spending must be cut,” said Gilmore, who is running for mayor next year.