The City Council’s passage of new budget ordinance on time, despite the ability to extend the process through June is a case of good news, bad news. Democratic Councilman-at-Large Ron Quagliani, who chairs the council, commended his fellow members for getting the spending package done as prescribed by the city charter.
Gov. Ned Lamont had waived charter provisions and is allowing municipal governments to extend their deliberations until late next month, but Quagliani said the council was up to the task.
The good news: The members were able to make several alterations to the budget, which totaled $165.2 million when presented in March by Mayor Nancy Rossi. Those alterations and cuts amount to close to $600,000.
The bad news: The state agency in charge of overseeing the city’s budget is not looking kindly on the fact the cuts that reduced the mill rate increase from .80 to .58. As a result, the changes made were reversed and the .80 mill increase remained.
Quagliani explained the situation that transpired during the council’s review.
“Prior to completing our deliberations, the council passed several budgetary line item cuts, many unanimously (13-0), that totaled close to $600,000 to potentially reduce the mill rate increase from .80 in the (pre-pandemic) Recommended Budget to approximately .58 mills,” he said.
Shortly after that meeting, the State Office of Policy and Management, the agency that oversees the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB), send a message to Finance Director Frank Cieplinski.
“He was told to relay to the council that any budget we pass that reduces the .80 recommended mill rate increase “would not be considered, and returned to us for correction,” Quagliani said.
So the final meeting of deliberations was a bit hectic.
“On our last night of deliberations the council approved several line item changes to increase funding to line items to include unallocated contingency, OPEB Trust, and our Rainy Day Fund amongst others. The council felt it important to have a healthy contingency fund, due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and anticipated lower revenue for the first quarter of FY21,” he said..
The council, by a vote of 13-0, approved the Mayor’s Recommended FY 21 Budget with Council amendments and set a city mill rate at 37.48 mills, a .80 increase from FY20. The Allingtown Fire Department mill rate was held flat.
MARB was supposed to review the budget at its last scheduled meeting, May 12, but that session was canceled for lack of a quorum. The council will have to wait until today to find out if their package is accepted. The MARB is scheduled to meet today.
Quagliani had high praise for the legislators, who had to adjust their meeting because of the COVID19 shutdown. He particularly praised Councilwoman Bridgette Hoski as chairman of The Finance Committee, who chaired the deliberations as a “committee of the whole.”
“The Council takes its responsibilities seriously and were nimble in transitioning from in-person meetings to virtual meeting to make sure city business continues to be conducted,” Qualiani said. “The Finance Committee/Council-As-A Whole chaired by Councilwoman Hoskie conducted 11 virtual budget meetings. Members were engaged in the budget process and worked very hard to identify budget reductions to lower the recommended mill rate increase to our residents recognizing the financial struggles many of our residents are going through. In the end, this was to no avail as OPM stated any budget submitted to them with less than a .80 mill rate increase would be rejected and returned. The current Council approved budget is awaiting MARB review and action.”
On major hurdle has been the funding of the city’s library system. The mayor’s original budget came under heavy criticism from the Village Improvement Association, which oversees library operations, for cuts made in the new spending plan
Quagliani said the members came up with some solutions.
“The Library budget was bifurcated to provide $1.2-plus million in direct payments, while maintaining $125k in contingent funding for FY21 in addition to $100k already set aside in contingent funding for FY20,” he said.
“These funds can potentially be used to support the library with developing program needs for our residents in a post-pandemic society, equipment, and implementing recommendations from the Library Efficiency Study that will be launched once the pandemic is over,”
He said the pandemic has closed the three-building library department, but there are some recommendations when things open again.
The library buildings have been closed since March due to the coronavirus and a reopening date at this point is undetermined. The Council has also requested that the City and Library collaborate on HR, Payroll, and IT to leverage similar systems and reduce costs,” he said.
Over the years, the current charter’s mandate of a super-majority to make alterations in the budget has been a hurdle too high for some past City Councils. This year, however, it wasn’t much of a difficulty according to the chairman.
“While the mill rate increase is not the result many of us wanted, the satisfying part of this year’s budget process was that this council (5 returners and 8 new members) worked collaboratively and passed several budget line item changes unanimously (13-0), easily reaching the super-majority needed to make any changes,” he said.
While the budget process continued in an altered but successful way, Quagliani wanted residents to know that the reason for the online meetings was not lost on the membership. He offered his and the council’s thoughts and prayers for victims of COVID-19.
“The Council offers its deepest condolences to our West Haven families that have lost loved ones to the coronavirus. A special thank you to all our community members that in these difficult times have given so generously to our neighbors in need. A bright light during this very difficult time is the strength, caring, and perseverance demonstrated daily by our West Haven community,” he said finally.