City residents need to take note of some blatantly flawed and downright inconsistent decision making going on right now on the Common Council. I offer you two case studies for your consideration.
The stipend for the Corporation Counsel’s assistant decreases accountability, instead of improving on it, and results in no significant budget savings in this fiscal year.
The assistant to the Corporation Counsel was almost eliminated last year during the budget process. Daniel Roginski, who held the position at the time, spoke before the council to defend his position and explain what he did on a regular basis. The position was finally approved with two stipulations: that the assistant’s office would be moved to City Hall from the counsel’s private office, and that the position would provide increased assistance to the Employee Relations Director.
However, when it was announced in January that Roginski was leaving, the council seemed to eager to make some sort of change to the position. What ended up happening is that at last Tuesday’s Common Council meeting, the four Republican council members voted to eliminate funding for the assistant’s position while approving two $5,000 stipends for both the Corporation Counsel and Employee Relations Director to hire their own assistants.
The two main arguments put forth by Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler for the stipend idea were that the city should not pay for an assistant for the Corporation Counsel’s private business (Alderman Richard Leggiero has also stated this) and that because the corporation counsel position is considered a part time position, that only a part time assistant is needed.
So for now, I’ll set aside the potentially slanderous accusation implied by both Hatzenbhuhler and Leggiero, even though Hatzenbuhler has admitted she has no proof the counsel has ever used his assistant for personal business. Let’s say for the sake of argument the concerns about keeping the assistant’s position separate from the counsel’s personal business are valid. The council’s resolution replaces a city employee whose office is in City Hall with a stipend with absolutely no stipulations or requirements whatsoever. Verbally, Hatzenbuhler has said that the stipend can be used to hire an assistant who can work on either the counsel’s city business or private business.
So basically, the four council members have gone ahead and given the Corporation Counsel permission to do exactly what council members have said the city shouldn’t be doing. The counsel now has permission from the council to hire an assistant using taxpayer funds to do both his private and city work, where before he was legally prohibited from doing so. The city does not benefit at all in terms of accountability with this new arrangement. Rather, we took a step backwards.
Let’s also look at the budget impact. The assistant’s position has $31,212 in it’s budget line with no benefits. Being that we are now 8 months through the fiscal year, that would leave approximately $10,000 left in the budget. That’s exactly how much the two stipends are for. The city is still providing funding at the same rate as for a full time position. There is no significant benefit in terms of budget savings with this new arrangement.
Council points finger back at itself for not providing enough resources for vegetation removal
The council has been talking about taking the seasonal workers who are hired every year to mow the lawns on city owned and foreclosed properties from the Recreation Department and moving them to the Department of Public Works and possibly promoting a foreman to oversee them. The thought is that maybe the DPW could get more done than the Recreation Department.
Recreation Department Director Rob Spagnola has said he has no problem with the idea. However, he offered some frank perspective at a committee meeting two weeks ago.
“Just to sit here and say, it can be done, or it should be done. That’s not the reality of it,” said Spagnola. “When you have 400 properties to take care of and you have 100 days to do them, it’s simple math, you can’t do them. Once a summer if you’re lucky, twice a summer is a miracle…we have two little push mowers basically that we’re trying to cut 400 properties with.”
Spagnola went on to say that he hoped the council would not have unreasonable expectations for DPW and that in order to really improve the frequency of property maintenance, that additional staff and equipment were needed.
Later, Alderman Ron Barone began speaking heatedly on the subject. “We don’t give them the proper stuff to work with – we give them bits and pieces,” he said. “We’re buying junk at an auction because someone likes to go to auctions on the weekends. And they’re breaking down. This guy’s got a twenty year old truck. Well at the county we’ve got forty year old trucks and they still run. But apparently not at the city because we kill ’em fast. So we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to take money from somewhere to buy them equipment so they can do the jobs that they are put out to do.”
Mayor Ann Thane later said, “Just to address a fallacy. We are not going out and buying equipment at auction because we want to. We’ve gone out to auction because there’s only $10,000 that they are allocated toward trucks and new equipment. I mean the departments are doing what they can with money that is allocated by this body.”
She continued, “So I think it’s tremendous that this council is willing to invest in the infrastructure for these departments to perform adequately. That’s where the bottom line is, it’s here at this table. If you come up with the money, they’ll run with it. But to say that they want to go to auction to buy used equipment is not quite accurate.”
Leggiero then said, “We would have had this equipment had we had a capital projects [plan], mayor. A lot of the equipment was in capital projects. It hasn’t moved because why? Where’s our finances?”
“So again, you can’t point at the department and say it’s their fault,” said Thane.
“We’re not blaming the department,” said Barone. “We’re blaming this council and prior councils to this council and you included. And we haven’t put it up because we don’t know where the hell we are. We don’t know how much money we have. But I’ll tell you what, if I can find out, totally, what our debt service is, and what we owe, and then we can maybe free up some money to buy some damn equipment in this city.”
So it turns out, according to Controller Matt Agresta, the exact amount of the city’s debt has been known since the budget was adopted last year. It’s $24,761,703 and the figure is included in the budget spreadsheet that every council member received and voted on. The figure isn’t related to the city’s ongoing and nearly completed effort to correct it’s past accounting records.
So apparently, this is what happens when our leaders are faced with the harsh reality that you can’t get something for nothing. The council is going to have to stop making excuses and step up to make some hard decisions. Either find a way to fund more staff and equipment to keep up the maintenance on city owned properties or tell the voters that they are going to have to be satisfied with the status quo. The council controls the purse strings. At some point, they are going to have to stop pointing fingers and start taking responsibility for the budget they passed and the restrictions it puts on how much the city can actually do.