City employees will be returning to work on Wednesday after the municipal council voted down mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ budget amendments, but approved a temporary budget at Tuesday evening’s emergency meeting lifting the suspension of government services.
In a 6-3 vote council members approved a $90.65 million temporary budget to cover expenses until the end of March.
“This ensures employees can return to work tomorrow,” said Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, who serves as the chairman of the council’s finance committee.
Morris gave his colleagues three options: approve the mayor’s budget changes, adopt a temporary spending measure, or cleverly reduce the budget — risking some state aid — but minimizing a tax hit on homeowners while incrementally weaning the municipality off financial assistance.
Council members in a 5-4 vote rejected Torres’ budget amendments and took up the temporary budget.
“Once again this pisses me off,” said Maritza Davila, councilwoman at-large, frustrated and angry at the government shutdown which resulted in hundreds of non-essential employees staying home for a day.
“There was no need for the shutdown,” said Alex Mendez, councilman at-large. ”The administration is using the workers against the city council.”
“What has occurred is masterful,” added Morris.
“He [Torres] decided to shut the government down when it was unnecessary,” said Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman.
Council members have said the mayor utilized brinkmanship by disrupting services and telling employees to stay home to force the governing body’s hands. However, that tactic may have backfired.
A number of speakers criticized the mayor for the shutdown while others wondered why he was not present at the emergency meeting.
“I’m disappointed the mayor chose not to be here tonight,” said council president William McKoy, who has been a key supporter of the mayor’s on the council.
Council members did not receive much blame for the shutdown despite being under pressure to approve spending as city employees packed the council chambers.
Michael Jackson, president of the union that represents blue collar public works employees, said his members are hurting because they lost a day’s pay. He said many have to take care of their families and pay rent.
“Missing a day of work is not going to help that situation,” said Jackson. “They are the working poor.”
Davila volunteered to give up a day’s pay in solidarity with the non-essential employees earning praise from one public works employee.
“No one should get paid today,” added Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, 2nd Ward councilman. Davila was joined by McKoy, Akhtaruzzaman, Mendez, Morris, and Michael Jackson.
“Now, municipal employees have felt the pinch of losing one day’s pay, so far. Perhaps, they can understand that’s how we homeowners feel when the city continually raises the tax rate,” said Georgette Derouche, a Garret Heights homeowner.
Derouche and other homeowners held up signs and protested tax increases just as they have been doing for the past months.
Morris, McKoy, Akhtaruzzaman, Jackson, Davila, and Mendez voted for the temporary budget while Sayegh, Ruby Cotton, and Julio Tavarez voted against.
Business administrator Nellie Pou said the approval of the temporary budget will allow the municipal government to restore services after going without it Tuesday. She said city employees will be notified to return to work on Wednesday. Employees who dial a specific number given out prior to the shutdown will also be told to return to work.
After the end of March the city will have reached $258.28 million in spending, according to city records. Last year’s budget was $252.61 million, according to the city.
Tavarez said he has yet to see any plan to build a thriving and financially sustainable city no longer dependent state aid.
“There’s no plan,” he said.
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