Schenectady councilman proposes changes to budget process

Polimeni wants spending plan to be more of a "policy document"
Schenectady City Councilman John Polimeni is given the Oath of Office from Judge Mark Powers.
Schenectady City Councilman John Polimeni is given the Oath of Office from Judge Mark Powers.

SCHENECTADY — Councilman John Polimeni wants to change the way the city crafts its budget.

Polimeni originally suggested a new way of looking at the budget during a City Council meeting on June 11. It comes after the council showed a deep division during last year’s budget process, passing an $85.2 million spending plan in a 4-3 vote.

The hope, according to Polimeni, is that the council begins to view the budget as more of a policy document as opposed to just numbers. Some expenditures go up, and some go down, and Polimeni wants to spend more time analyzing the reasons for those changes.

“If the policy is that we want to attack a certain issue, what do we need to make sure we get those outcomes?” Polimeni asked. “I’m looking for: What are the outcomes going to be, based on the projected budget, and what is the return on investment for all of us paying the taxes?”

Polimeni also said he would like council members to submit any questions about the proposed budget to department heads before meeting with them. That way, department heads would have a better idea of what information they need to have ready.

“That’s so we’re not catching people out of the blue or on the spot,” Polimeni said. “That gives us an opportunity to get better answers.”

He added that if everyone came prepared to the budget meetings, it would result in a “much better and more meaningful process.”

The suggestion stems from conversations he and City Council President Ed Kosiur had with Mayor Gary McCarthy.

Kosiur did not respond to a request for comment.

McCarthy said when he submits his proposed budget to the council, what he’s submitting is “a policy document.” 

But when council members have done their review of his proposal in previous budget cycles, it has not dug deep enough into the intent behind the numbers, he said.

“I think two years ago, the council spent 23 minutes on the Police and Fire departments,” McCarthy said. “That’s not an analysis on a policy document.”

Polimeni’s proposal garnered praise from some council members.

Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas said she liked the idea. She said giving questions to department heads before they meet with council members could make the process more efficient.

In the past, she said, council members would ask questions without getting answers right away.

“It’s helpful for the department heads to have information ahead of time for whatever questions, so they’re prepared when they come to the meeting instead of saying, ‘Let me get back to you,’ ” Zalewski-Wildzunas said.

Councilman John Mootooveren agreed with Polimeni that council members need to do a more in-depth analysis.

“We’ve been discussing for several years to move away from what we call ‘audit budgeting,’” Mootooveren said. “We tend to audit the budget instead of doing performance budgeting.”

For other council members, the proposed change was a little confusing, as they believe the budget process has included analysis for several budget cycles.

“We go line by line, so, when a position comes up, we ask, ‘Why do you need the funding?’” independent Councilman Vince Riggi said. “Generally, that’s what you do.”

Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo said she takes the budget process very seriously.  She said the council in the past has looked at the budget to see how the city can save money and increase revenue.

“I think [the budget process] is the single most important function of the council, as far as our oversight and how taxpayer money is used,” she said. 

Councilwoman Marion Porterfield said she needs to hear more from Polimeni about what exactly he wants to change about the process. And while she said she is always open to improving the process, the fact that Polimeni wants to change the process came as news to her.

“I never heard it discussed at a committee meeting or discussed with me,” Porterfield said.

Porterfield did express some concern about giving department heads questions ahead of time. She said most of the questions she puts forth come from the report and the explanation she receives from department heads.

Polimeni said council members will still be able to ask questions of department heads during the budget meetings. But he wants to get some questions in advance, so they can be sent to the department heads before the meeting.

Perazzo still took issue with Polimeni’s comments that the change he is proposing could make the budget process more meaningful. She said the council always worked hard on the budget and did its due diligence to help relieve any tax burdens for city residents.

Except for last year; she said some of her colleagues simply “rubber stamped” McCarthy’s budget, instead of continuing to work on it and possibly reducing taxes by another percentage point.

“The fact of it is, I had several pages of suggestions of questions and information I wanted to follow on, and I didn’t get to have those,” Perazzo said of the most recent budget process. “It continued to be meaningful to me when it stopped being meaningful to others.”

When asked about Perazzo’s comments, Polimeni demurred.

“There’s nothing to respond to,” he said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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