Mayor Andre Sayegh on Tuesday afternoon said his administration officials have identified $4 million in cuts to partially resolve the ongoing budget crisis that would have claimed more than 200 police and fire jobs.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but I am able to announce that we have delayed implementation of furloughs, layoffs, and a payroll deferral plan,” said Sayegh in a statement. “We must still move forward with changes to our sewer rate and supplemental bill.”
Municipal officials said the state has recommended the city increase sewer fees. Some council members want to create a sewer utility which will fairly spread both sewer maintenance and capital improvement expenses among users.
At present, sewer users in neighboring towns are paying next to nothing. A sewer utility will also result in a bigger contribution from nonprofit organizations.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the plan,” said councilman Flavio Rivera, chairman of the finance committee, when told of the mayor’s announcement. “It’s good news if they found the money needed to balance the budget.”
Rivera campaigned on creating a sewer utility. However, he is not in favor of imposing a large sewer fee increase.
The state wants the city to raise sewer fees by $3 million, according to municipal officials. Currently, the sewer system is operating at a $5.7 million loss, according to a report presented to the council earlier in the month. The city separately bills to fund the sewer system, but the collection is not sufficient to maintain and improve antiquated the system.
Rivera worries the mayor is “disguising” a tax increase by calling it a sewer fee. Sayegh has raised taxes by 2-percent last year to raise $3 million in revenue.
Earlier in the month, finance director Marge Cherone told council members the deficit had been reduced to $6 million. With the $4 million in savings produced from putting off new hiring and cost cutting at departments, the mayor still needs to find $2 million.
“If he found $4 million, I commend the mayor for tightening the belts,” said councilman Luis Velez.
Velez said he has to see more details about the mayor’s sewer fee plan.
Some council members were irritated at the way the mayor made the announcement.
“I’d love to see the details of that plan and where that money came from,” said councilwoman Lilisa Mimms. Both Mimms and Rivera were annoyed at the way the mayor made an announcement without informing council members, who have had to take criticism from residents about potential layoffs. “Shouldn’t we know something as council members?”
“Each month we will monitor expected revenues and expenses and may still need to come back to the table with our bargaining units. It also means that residents may see some impact to services and operations in the city; we cannot operate at the same capacity as before. But for now, our employees will maintain their positions,” said Sayegh.