The mayor may be asked to sacrifice along with the city residents in the 2009 budget, City Council members said as they prepared for one last marathon session of budget cuts.
They said they were stunned to learn that the mayor wanted a $2,900 raise on top of the $36,000 raise they approved last year. He has also asked them to hike his travel budget from $3,500 to $10,000.
Council members have been poring over the $76.5 million budget for two weeks in search of roughly $900,000 in cuts, so they can erase the mayor’s proposed 2.9 percent tax increase. From their reaction to his raise — which is exactly 2.9 percent — it looks like the $2,900 will be added to their long list of cuts. That would leave his salary at $96,706.
“I think sacrifice begins at the top,” said Councilman Mark Blanchfield, the finance committee chairman. “That raise is just inadvisable.”
As for the travel, he expressed disbelief that the mayor had spent nearly $10,000 this year. He was budgeted to spend $3,500 and has been praised for making his department heads stick closely to their budgets.
“It seems to be a lot of money to spend on travel,” Blanchfield said.
Other council members agreed. But they emphasized that their focus will be on other cuts — like the $20,000 in unspent postage in the code department, the $40,000 addition to the paving budget, and other large expenses.
“We’re not going to balance the budget on the mayor’s raise,” Blanchfield said, but added that he’d thought about eliminating the mayor’s $10,000 travel budget.
“We could bring it to zero,” he said.
Mayor Brian U. Stratton defended his raise as a sensible way to avoid the large jumps in salary that led to his $36,000 raise that took effect year.
“It really was catching up for many years in which nothing was done. It’s important the salary line keeps pace … otherwise invariably it will become an election-year issue,” he said.
He added that his 2.9 percent request would not take effect immediately, even if the council approves it.
“It only takes effect if there’s an adjustment for the CSEA and AFSCME [unions]. It’s really just part of the overall adjustments that have been put in for non-union people,” Stratton said, adding, “Going into this economic climate, it may turn out to be zero” if the unions agree to go without a raise next year.
The council may make its final decision on the raise and a host of other possible cuts today at a budget meeting scheduled to begin at 7:30 a.m. at City Hall.
“We’ll pull it all together, I hope,” Blanchfield said.
Blanchfield asked the council to meet Saturday, rather than Friday, for a final vote. The vote is set for a meeting at 10 a.m. on the very last day that the council can adopt a budget.
“I think we’ll need to go right up to the weekend,” he said. “We’re going to need the time on this one.”
His goal is to eliminate the proposed tax increase. That would still leave city residents with a hefty increase in fees: they would pay $13 more for trash pickup, $11 more for water and $15 more for sewer service.
If the tax hike goes through as proposed by the mayor, the average homeowner in a house assessed at $80,000 would also pay $28 more in taxes. The total bill would come to $2,393 before school and county taxes.
Stratton has threatened to veto the budget if the council approves some of Blanchfield’s proposed cuts, which the mayor describes as “clear-cutting” and “scorched-earth.”
But council members appeared unmoved by the threat.
“We’re veto-proof, aren’t we?” Councilman Joseph Allen said. “We’re all supporting Mark.”
The city, meanwhile, has taken the unusual step of denying a Freedom of Information request from The Daily Gazette for a copy of its proposed budget. Although the city provided a paper copy, the Gazette asked for an electronic copy to post on its Web site. The site already includes proposed budgets for the cities of Albany and Saratoga Springs as well as Albany County and Schenectady County.
Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam said she had an electronic version of the proposed budget, in Excel spreadsheet format, but that she would not give it to the newspaper because readers and reporters could edit the spreadsheet and change the figures.
“I’m not saying I don’t trust you, but …” Alam said.
The newspaper offered to convert the document to PDF form, which cannot be altered, but she said she would not release any electronic version until after the proposed budget is adopted.
Robert Freeman, director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said the Freedom of Information law is clear on the topic of budgets, even spending plans that have not yet been approved.
“They have to be disclosed,” he said. “If they have the capacity to e-mail it you, they have to do it.”
As for the concern about altering the document, he said, “So what? You could always alter anything you got. They don’t have to worry, because they have the original and could point out any discrepancies.”
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