Council members need to get spending priorities straight

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Priorities

Lately there’s been a whole bunch of situations cropping up that have required the Common Council to consider spending money that wasn’t originally budgeted for. Earlier this year, the council fought tooth and nail to end up with a budget that didn’t raise taxes. That was certainly a noble goal, but at the time, I wondered if what was passed was actually a viable budget. We’ve only just completed the first quarter of the fiscal year, and already the cracks are beginning to show.

The biggest problem that’s come up so far is the overtime budget for the Fire Department. Last week, Fire Chief Michael Whitty told the council that the department had already used almost all of their allotted $60,000 overtime budget. Even though records clearly show the department used anywhere from $86,000 to $150,000 in previous years, everyone seemed shocked by the announcement. Mayor Ann Thane’s proposed budget which reflected the former chief’s request for $100,000 for overtime, which took into account anticipated retirements, was cut down by $40,000 by the council earlier in the year.

Alderman Ron Barone made a sanctimonious speech about how Amsterdam had “better learn” to stay within its budget. Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler flat-out said “no” as soon as Whitty made the request for more funds and went on later to say that “we’re not in a financial position to just keep passing contingency items.”

Neither Barone nor Hatzenbuhler seem very receptive of an emergency request for $15,000 to help keep the city’s homeless shelter open either.

But just last September both council members voted to use $8,000 from the contingency fund to cover additional vegetation removal work that was done by the Recreation Dept. at the request of council members (Resolution #14/15-58). Also last month, both members seemed perfectly willing to find an extra $20,000 to lay down pavement for a special events tent at the golf course. When asked where the money would come from, Barone’s reply was “we’ll figure it out.”

The contingency fund shouldn’t be looked at as a giant un-allocated piggy bank for whatever projects pop into city official’s heads during the course of the year. The contingency fund should be used for truly unplanned or unexpected shortfalls that may affect the health, safety or well-being of our residents.

And that’s why maybe next year, the common council may want to start off in January by planning for the budget, rather than burning up valuable time and concentration by playing political power games as they did this year. That way maybe they can do a little bit better job next time of judging the budget requests from department heads as well as making sure that special projects are planned for so that (*gasp*) the tax levy can be set accordingly so we can be sure the funds are available to use. And if council members don’t want to raise taxes to fund their projects, then maybe those projects aren’t that essential after all.

It’s interesting to note that Alderman Ed Russo made at least two comments at last week’s meeting that hinted at his dissatisfaction with the way the budget was handled this year. During the budget process earlier in the year, Russo voted along with the three other Republicans on the council to approve a long list of cuts to Thane’s proposed budget, but broke ranks to support saving the Corporation Counsel’s administrative assistant position.

In regards to Barone’s statements about the fire department overtime, he said,“That’s why when we do the budget, we really have to look at the budget and you really have to know the realistic figures.” Later he said in regards to Hatzenbuhler’s concerns about contingency fund spending, “When we do the budget, we have to do the budget properly.”

At the end of the day, however, we have to work with the budget we have, not the budget we wish we had. The council needs to do a little thinking to prioritize their spending decisions.

The way I see it, unless we are going to tell the fire department they can’t take vacation or sick time, or that they have to make do with short staff, we’re going to have to increase their overtime budget. A mistake was made here and it has to be corrected. If the money can’t be found from cutting other lines in the budget, then it’s going to have to come out of contingency funds.

The other area where I think the city has an obligation is with the land bank. This program is crucial if we ever hope to start reversing the problems with blight in our neighborhoods. Both the mayor and council have expressed unanimous support for the project, but somehow funding was left out of both the proposed and final budget. The city made one $15,000 contribution out of last year’s budget, and have made one more contribution of the same amount using contingency funds this year. I think it was an honest mistake that the program didn’t get a line in the budget, but we need to make sure this program doesn’t lose momentum.

Lastly, I believe we should definitely contribute to help keep the homeless shelter open this winter. It’s simply unconscionable to me for our city to revert back to the situation we had years ago when people were camping out in the wooded areas through the freezing winter. When someone is living out in the cold, that’s an indication that their problem is far more serious than the friendly advice to “get a job” is going to help. The short-term assistance that the homeless shelter provides is critical to helping those in the most severe conditions of poverty get back on their feet.

Any other non-essential pet projects need to be put on the back burner until the city can either properly include them in the budget next year, or fund them through bonding. I think improving the golf course, cutting vegetation and fixing up our parks are beneficial projects. But we all need to be honest about the price tag. Keeping our tax rate flat is great, but if it comes at the expense of depleting our contingency fund, borrowing, or even dipping into our fund balance, is that really the best thing for the city long-term financial health?

(Photo by Tim Becker)

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.