Finance Committee scrutinizes budget

Requests for budget increases in the coming fiscal year faced rigorous questioning at the Board of Aldermen Finance Committee meeting Tuesday night.

As the committee works to iron out the final allocation in the fiscal year 2009-’10 city budget, representatives from 15 city departments were asked to thoroughly justify their proposals for any additional funding. While some smaller departments made no requests for additional money, larger departments including the city’s fire and police departments along with the Board of Education have all asked for funding increases to meet rising fixed and personnel costs. But under the city’s current budget proposal — which works to mitigate a $1.1 billion state deficit — department spending is expected to remain flat.

New Haven’s Board of Education submitted a request for a 3 percent budget increase, up from $173 million spent last year, an increase William Clark, the board’s chief operating officer, ardently argued for.

“In the past year, we have signed new teaching and transport contracts,” Clark said. “Costs for utilities and special education programs have also risen.

Clark added that under the city’s current budget plans, there will be a 25 percent cut to the magnet school program, which attracts over 2,000 students from outside New Haven.

Clark’s requests were met with little sympathy. Ward 25 Alderman Ina Silverman proposed a cut instead: reneging on a state mandate to provide free bus transport for private school students.

Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar also voiced doubts: “Education is something easy to demagogue — you must have some sort of contingency budget,” he said in response to Clark’s threat that the current budget would force the Board of Education to “cut, consolidate and freeze.”

Representatives from the New Haven Fire Department also faced opposition in their request for extra funding. This year, the fire department estimated that it will exceed its overtime budget by more than $700,000.

Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts ’01 said that while the fire department has implemented new cost-saving initiatives, such as recovering auto accident expenses, staff shortages mean that the fire department must pay existing personnel overtime wages. Seventy-three positions currently remain vacant, he said.

Despite asking for an overtime budget of $2.7 million — down from over $3 million in the previous year — the fire department still faced interrogation. Lemar asked whether further cost-cutting could be achieved through reducing the number of fire houses around the city.

The New Haven Police Department asked for a 4-percent budget increase to cover rising salaries. More than two hours into the meeting, the majority of city departments present had yet to take the floor.

The budget is currently under revision pending budget request from city departments and will be finalized by June.

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