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Mayor: Reps’ budget cut ‘unprecedented’

May 3, 2018 GMT

STAMFORD — The Board of Representatives slashed Mayor David Martin’s operating budget to run the city and schools in the fiscal year beginning July 1 by $2.2 million late Tuesday night, saying it’s time to give taxpayers a break.

Martin’s response Wednesday was that the cut is “unprecedented” and it may be impossible to avoid layoffs and maintain city services.

The board far exceeded the $676,000 cut recommended by its Fiscal Committee, lopping off the $300,000 Martin wanted for park ambassadors and rejecting his $120,000 request, reiterated in a last-minute letter, for a citizens’ services manager.

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Still, the cut wasn’t enough for city Rep. Anzelmo Graziosi, D-13, who proposed chopping $2.8 million to keep the budget increase to an amount “that taxpayers can afford.”

“We are being taxed to death,” Graziosi said. “In the 15 years I’ve lived in Stamford, my taxes have doubled. This is the way it’s been going for decades, but we can’t keep it up. It’s not feasible, and it’s only going to get worse.”

Representatives voted his motion down, saying it would be too big a hit on city services.

Rep. Charles Pia Jr., R-18, proposed a compromise cut of $1.4 million - half of what Graziosi suggested.

Some representatives were reluctant to make a general cut because, they said, the board would have no control over what gets the ax. But Pia said a $1.4 million cut “is not unreasonable,” and it’s Martin’s job “to figure out how to spend the money.”

“He is the chief executive of this city,” Pia said. “The problem is with him - he has come in with $50 million increases each year. If we think we can’t do anything, then it’s not worth it for us to be here.”

Martin’s reaction

In an email the next day, Martin wrote that his “commitment to making Stamford the best place to live remains unchanged. Responding to the unprecedented level of cuts made by the Board of Representatives last night while minimizing layoffs and maintaining services may not be possible.”

Many of the cuts appear to be “small short-term savings that will compromise our services and our ability to achieve long-term structural cost improvements,” Martin wrote. “But, over the upcoming days we will determine the magnitude of the impact on our citizens.”

Eliminating important resources “will possibly delay or eliminate progress on improving services citizens deserve and the boards seem to be demanding,” he wrote.

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Representatives made the cuts acknowledging that they would have to come from a small portion of the budget. About 80 percent of it is fixed costs, such as salaries mandated by union contracts, debt service and other obligations, they said.

But they approved Pia’s compromise cut in a 21-15 vote. Four of the board’s 40 members were absent Tuesday.

Parks debate

The total cut comprised the $1.4 million plus the Fiscal Committee’s recommended $676,000. It also included the remaining portion for Martin’s $300,000 park ambassador program. The committee recommended cutting it in half.

The program drew wide opposition from residents and representatives who said the parks need more police officers instead. After a long discussion, the full board cut the remaining half.

“There is a very strong consensus from constituents that they want more park police officers,” said city Rep. David Watkins, R-1. “The problem is how do we get funding for it? If we raise the budget by $300,000 we can’t guarantee that the mayor will reallocate it for park police. I have agonized over this, but I decided to vote against the $300,000 and hope the mayor will find money for park police elsewhere.”

The finance board’s total cut spared the Board of Education - members said Superintendent Earl Kim turned in a tight budget -- and outside agencies that provide services for the needy, cultural programs and the library.

Half-billion dollar budget

Like the representatives, finance board members two weeks ago directed their ax at Martin’s office and his requests to create new jobs, or fill jobs that are vacant. They cut $3.1 million, including 15 of the 23 positions.

When he presented his spending plan in March, asking for $569 million — 2.4 percent more than this year’s budget — Martin said he focused on fixing roads and antiquated payroll systems, improving service to citizens, and funding employee retirement benefits.

In a letter to representatives the day before the budget vote, Martin asked that they spare the citizens’ services manager position. The city needs a central manager to track the thousands of reports of zoning violations, damaged roads, illegal dumping and other problems than come into the Citizens’ Service Center each year, Martin wrote. The manager’s key role would be coordinating the multiple city departments that are dispatched to make the repairs, Martin wrote.

But the position was voted down.

Representatives Tuesday lauded Martin for funding post-retirement benefits for city employees - an obligation long neglected by previous mayors. But Graziosi and other representatives said spending must be held in check because taxpayers’ incomes are not keeping pace.

“The city’s operating budget has been growing 5 percent a year, but the economy in Connecticut is growing only 1 percent a year,” said city Rep. Dennis Mahoney, R-20. “About 33 percent of city employees are earning more than $100,000 a year, which is substantially more than most of our residents. At some point we are going to run out of our residents’ money.”

The board passed a $564 million operating budget, which includes $273 million for schools. They approved $50 million for capital expenditures.

Change ahead

City Rep. Bob Lion, D-19, said board committees must question the programs and expenditures that come before them each month to develop a clear picture of where taxpayers’ money goes, in preparation for the vote on next year’s budget.

“We cut $2.2 million out of a $564 million budget. That’s all we did,” Lion said after the meeting. “But it sets the stage for further change.”

Graziosi said he was unsatisfied with one aspect of the result, and very satisfied with another.

“The cut should have gone deeper. The No. 1 comment when I was going door-to-door campaigning last year was, ‘Don’t raise taxes,’” the first-term Democrat said. “But I’m happy that we did what we did in a bipartisan way.”

On May 15 the finance board will set the mill rate, which will determine the new tax rates for property owners.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com.

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