Mayor Jane Williams-Warren secured approval for her $279.52 million introduced budget on Wednesday night after her budget was voted down last week. Council members demanded the administration provide a reduction in force or layoff plan prior to passing the introduced budget in a 6-3 vote.
Williams-Warren’s fiscal 2018 budget will increase taxes on homeowners by 2.5-percent. The municipal portion of the budget increases to $155.22 from last year’s $151.37 million, according to the budget document presented to council members.
Council members vehemently opposed the proposed tax increase and demanded the administration make cuts to avoid a big tax hike.
Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, chairman of the finance committee, had asked the administration to reduce spending in every department by 20-percent. However, the administration ended up producing the equivalent amounts in cuts without forcing a 20-percernt reduction in the various departments.
Finance director Marge Cherone told council members the administration made $7.9 million in cuts to the various departments. That’s not enough to fill the $15.6 million gap in this year’s budget. The shortfall is driven by health insurance, workers compensation, and liability insurance cost increases, according to officials.
“This budget is maxed out. Appropriations have been cut to the bones,” said Cherone. “We can’t cut it anymore.”
Council members criticized the administration for making new hires this fiscal year that started on July 1st, 2017 knowing there will be a budget crunch. Some requested a list of all hires from the start of this fiscal year.
Morris took aim at the increases in the law department and the administration. While other departments saw decreases in their budget the departments headed by law director Domenick Stampone and business administrator Nellie Pou saw increases.
Morris demanded increases in both departments be reduced.
“I’m very uncomfortable with the increases,” said Morris of the tax levy. Officials distributed a one-page document that shows the impact of the levy increase on homeowners. It shows an $11-dollar reduction for an average home assessed at $254,700.
Morris described the one-pager as “misleading.” Cherone told the council later the tax increase could be as much as $600 for an average home assessed at $254,700. That amount would have to be paid in the first half of 2018.
Williams-Warren urged council members to approve the introduced budget which can be amended prior to final adoption. She said the introduced budget is required for the state to consider providing transitional aid to the city.
“I don’t want to lose the opportunity to get $27 million in aid,” said the mayor. She took office in mid-October. “I’m asking council members to have faith in the administration. We can amend.”
The city received $25 million in state aid last year and is seeking $27 million this year.
Morris told the administration to prepare a layoff plan. Council members have suggested the administration terminate “non-essential” employees; however, each time they were met with a response that a layoff plan would be needed because the city is a civil service municipality.
Morris wants the administration to reduce its budget. “I’m warning the administration,” said Morris, “either they do it or I’ll do it.” He said the new mayor “inherited this mess” from former mayor Jose “Joey” Torres.
Torres plugged budget gaps using one-time revenue fixes.
Morris, Michael Jackson, William McKoy, Andre Sayegh, Luis Velez, and Ruby Cotton voted in favor of the introduced budget while Maritza Davila, Shahin Khalique, and Alex Mendez voted against.
“This budget is higher than we can afford it to be,” said McKoy.