City passes budget

photo3
Photo by Alon Harish.

The city’s 2011-2012 budget passed the Board of Aldermen Monday night by a vote of 23 to 3.

In a meeting less than half the length of last May’s, aldermen approved a $475 million budget that does not raise property taxes but relies on $4.3 million in labor savings yet to be found. Despite efforts by Ward 30 Alderman Darnell Goldson and a group of aldermen who spoke out against what they said were imbalances in the city’s fiscal policy, the budget passed easily with the amendments that came last week from the finance committee.

Protesters, mostly members of city unions, stood in the back of the aldermanic chamber.
Protesters, mostly members of city unions, stood in the back of the aldermanic chamber.

While the budget keeps property taxes steady, Goldson criticized an amendment approved by Shah’s committee May 13 that balanced the budget with $4.3 million in “labor concessions and/or service reductions.”

Ward 29 Alderman and Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said the city was left in the red by $4.3 million after several revenue measures had fallen through. The proposed stormwater authority, projected to save $2.5 million, failed to get aldermanic approval; the city did not find a buyer for the Temple Medical garage, which it expected to sell for $7 million; and it will not see any savings this fiscal year from the proposed privatization of school custodial services, which is still being reviewed by a state-appointed arbitrator.

“I know we’d all like to pat ourselves on the back and say this budget is balanced, but we know it’s not,” Goldson said. “It’s time to face the truth and stop being cynical to taxpayers.”

Goldson offered an amendment to the budget which he said would have reduced city spending by $3.6 million, including $2 million in savings on personnel costs. 26 layoffs would have been included, but unlike the layoffs DeStefano issued in February, Goldson said, these would be directed at city employees earning an above-average salary. The amendment did not win any votes but Goldson’s.

A 3 percent reduction in labor costs would fill the $4.3 million gap, Goldfield said after the meeting, adding that he hopes city unions will agree to concessions on their health benefits and pensions in order to avoid the use of layoffs to balance the budget.

Goldson countered that the gap is a cynical way to avoid unpopular decisions, and that aldermen will likely ignore it until after this fall’s elections. Goldson also alleged that DeStefano held a meeting with aldermen in his office last week in which he urged them not to debate any amendments to the budget they approved, adding that he believed the meeting violated public records law by including a quorum of finance committee members without legal notice of a committee meeting.

City spokesman Adam Joseph said he does not recall any such meeting, but it is common practice for the mayor to advocate for the budget he thinks is best for the city.

Led by Ward 28 Alderwoman Claudette Robinson-Thorpe and Ward 6 Alderwoman Dolores Colón, 11 aldermen signed a letter urging the city to rethink its long-term budgetary priorities, which they said neglect the city’s youth, treat city employees unfairly and do not require non-profit institutions such as Yale, most of whose property is tax-exempt, to “pay their fair share of taxes.”

Although he did not sign the letter, Goldson enthusiastically supported the argument that Yale should be contributing more to the city’s budget. Goldson said the DeStefano administration has failed for eight years to adhere to a 2003 aldermanic order requiring the city to ask Yale to pay the city the difference between what the city receives from the state in Payments In Lieu Of Taxes funding and what the city would receive if Yale’s property were taxable. He acknowledged, though, that it is not known how much that difference would be.

“What we do know is that Yale is the largest property owner in the city but only the fifth-largest taxpayer, and its voluntary contributions don’t make up for it,” Goldson said.

Goldson’s words drew the applause of several representatives of city unions affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), who stood in the back of the packed aldermanic chamber with signs denouncing the budget and the mayor. AFSCME representatives recently staged a press conference near Cross Campus to pressure Yale to pay the city to keep four blocks of High and Wall Streets closed to general vehicular traffic, a demand that comes 20 years after the University paid $1.1 million in an agreement that subjected continued closure only to a traffic review.

The mention of Yale was also involved in more light-hearted moment during the meeting. Ward 1 Alderman Michael Jones ’11, who will not seek reelection this fall, received a standing ovation from aldermen in honor of the degree he received earlier Monday at Commencement.

Jones said he is thankful for the support he has had from many of his colleagues on the Board of Aldermen as he has tried to balance his obligations as a student and as an alderman.

With the budget passed, DeStefano must now look to city employees for the $4.3 million needed to balance the budget. For months, he has called on city union leaders to agree to changes in employee health and pension plans, which have risen to 22 percent of the city budget, up from 12 percent a decade ago. While up to 70 layoffs are already expected this summer, if those concessions are not found, many more could ensue, Goldfield said.

DeStefano’s situation parallels what Gov. Dannel Malloy faced since his Feb. 16 budget address, when the governor called for $2 billion in concessions over two years from state employees to help plug the state’s budget deficit. Last week, a tentative deal between state labor unions and Malloy’s administration emerged after two months of negotiations in which unions conceded $1.6 billion of that request.

“The governor did it, now let’s see if the mayor can do it,” Goldfield said, adding that he believes DeStefano’s call for concessions faces greater political hostility than Malloy’s did.

The budget approved by aldermen Monday night covers the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

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