With the public hearing done for another budget cycle, the City Council has begun the annual task of review. The 165.54 million package was presented last month, and once deliberations are concluded a new budget ordinance is required by the first Thursday in May under the charter.
The public hearing was conducted in a “virtual” setting, with most of the questions, according to council member, focusing on the funding of the West Haven library. Mayor Rossi’s budget includes the recommended expenditures requested by the Village Improvement Association (VIA), which runs the system.
The review process has begun with a list of departments coming under initial scrutiny. Both Council Chairman Ron Quagliani (D-at-large) and Finance Chairman Bridgette Hoskie (D-1), who runs the sessions of the Committee of the Whole, said several matters have been resolved. The allocation of money for a rent/lease of a new Allingtown Branch for the library was given a go-ahead, though no new venue has been secured.
Other completed reviews included the Board of Education, Treasurer, who highlighted the state and federal revenues expected, police (with emphasis on discussions concerning a return to a pension retirement benefit).
One alteration the council made was to apportion some of the COVID relief funding toward the Allingtown Pension liability.
“The Council, by unanimous vote, amended the WH Fire Department-Allingtown budget to allocate an additional $350,000 to the unfunded pension liability and $50,000 for advance funding of an OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits) Trust for the Allingtown Fire Department,” Quagliani said. “This is consistent with MARB recommendations and if the final budget is approved will reduce the Allingtown Fire mill rate from 14.02 in FY21 to 11.62 in FY22.”
Hoskie said that discussion came when she and Councilwoman Robin Watt Hamilton (D-5) met with Allingtown representatives.
“The City Council deliberated over the recommendations provided then voted to add additional funding to the Allingtown Fire District pension fund, over what was recommended by the city’s actuary. The additional contribution will not increase taxes and will begin to address the district’s unfunded pension liability,” she said.
With the Board of Education getting no new funding in the new budget, money is coming to the department via the COVID relief packages from both the state and federal government. There was some fear that one-time infusion might be used to fund day-to-day programming and create a hole in future budgets. Both Quagliani and Hoskie have said the funding is not being used in that manner, but they have offered suggestions to the board as to how some of the funds might be best spent.
“COVID funding provided by both the Federal and State governments go directly to the Board of Education,” Quagliani said. “The mayor nor the Council has any authority on how school funds are utilized however we did offer our suggestions and recommendations to the BOE. The Superintendent did offer that while the guidance on how to use these grants are still pending, potential uses would be for program development to bridge the educational gap that occurred due to COVID-19 as well as infrastructure improvements of our school buildings.”
“There are funds available directly from the federal government to the Board of Education to mitigate the effects from the COVID-19 global pandemic. These funds will be used to close the learning gap caused by the pandemic and enhance our district’s educational performance,” she said.
Both agree the next few weeks will be spent looking at what Republican co-minority leader Barry Lee Cohen (R-10) called “more sensitive” issues in the package.
Both Cohen and his co-leader Colleen O’Connor (R-at-large) have seen real cooperation among the members during the deliberations. Both Republicans praised the increase made in the Allingtown Pension Fund. O’Connor wants to see some of the COVID funding coming to the city go to other areas.
“I am happy to say that the Council made a motion and voted to pay down some of Allingtown’s Fire Department Pension deficit. These are the kind of projects that need the money. I would also like to see some of the money go towards repairing some of West Haven’s playgrounds and parks. Our Infrastructure is in need of some TLC. It is our duty as the Council to make sure that the money is spent wisely,” she said.
Cohen, meanwhile, said the budget deliberations now focus on how money is spent, rather than where, and this is where the real review is needed.
“This coming week, we will review some of the more sensitive areas of the budget which include recommended increases in overtime, newly created and previously open positions, as well as obtaining a better understanding of some salary increases, proposed bonding, and new or expanded project initiatives. Determining if these and other items are fiscally responsible and justified will be thoughtfully undertaken,” he said.
Cohen is concerned because due to revaluation one-fifth of city taxpayers may see an increase in taxes. This demands an eye toward value, he said.
“As was noted, the recommended budget offers a ‘constant’ mill rate. However, given that approximately 20% of homeowners will be paying higher taxes as currently proposed, my hope is that the council will be keenly aware that we must live within our means. Our mission should be to approve a final budget that creates value for all constituents,” he said.