SARATOGA SPRINGS — Supporters of the city’s recreation programs turned out Tuesday night to urge the City Council not to cut the Recreation Department as part of efforts to close a multimillion-dollar budget gap caused by pandemic-related economic losses.
“I think everyone in the room can agree youth is something we should give priority to,” said one volunteer coach, Bret McArthur. “They have been suffering.”
City Council members said they’re hopeful that some recreation programs can be restored, but only if there is a way they can pay for themselves.
“I have great faith in my team to pull things together,” said Mayor Meg Kelly, whose office oversees the city Recreation Department.
During a public hearing that lasted more than an hour, parents and coaches — most of whom had received an email from the city Recreation Commission urging them to speak out — said they recognize the city is in a difficult financial situation, but said recreation programs are important to families, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic having undermined in-school education and other traditional youth activities.
“Rec in general gives families hope, which right now is something we don’t hear much of,” said Frieda Miller, another parent and coach.
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan has proposed deep cuts to the Recreation Department in her tentative budget, though the City Council has yet to discuss them.
Tuesday night’s public hearing, moved to City Hall’s third-floor music hall so more people could attend while maintaining six feet of social distance, was the public’s first chance to comment on proposed cuts. Even with using the larger room, some people were unable to get in, and some speakers left quickly so that others could be allowed in.
Madigan said the recreation programs weren’t being totally cut, but some things have to be cut unless the city receives federal aid. During talks on a new federal stimulus bill, Republicans in the U.S. Senate have resisted aiding local governments, which are facing huge revenue losses across the country. She said any recreation programs that can support themselves through user fees can go forward.
“Budgeted Recreation Department expenses have been reduced but not completely eliminated, maintaining only the costs of the director of recreation, one staff person, and building and grounds maintenance and utilities,” Madigan said. “This means recreations programs cannot incur any additional costs to the city … It does not mean that [the Recreation Department] is shutting down. As budget neutral programs are implemented, the budget will be amended to include them.”
Madigan’s budget proposal totals $41.9 million, which is a $6.8 million reduction from this year’s budget. In addition to salary cuts and elimination of recreation programs, it proposes a 6 percent property tax increase.
“Reductions have to be made; it is our job to figure out how,” Madigan said.
The cuts are needed because of revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic. In one new example, the city’s sales tax revenue in August was off 58 percent from a year ago, and the June-July-August quarter was off 38 percent.
The city Recreation Department budget has has been cut by about $1.2 million, but will still spend about $1.2 million — a figure Madigan acknowledged is “skeletal.” It oversees parks and playgrounds, including the city Recreation Center on Vanderbilt Avenue, the East Side and West Side recreation fields, and the Wiebel Avenue ice rink.
The Recreation Center, however, has been unavailable for the last two years because City Hall operations were occupying it on an emergency basis, and major facilities have remained closed this year to avoid the kind of close contact that it is feared could spread COVID-19.
“The unpleasant reality is that the economic impacts of COVID-19 are real and far reaching, with no end in sight,” Madigan said. “State and local governments are in dire need of aid from Washington. Absent such aid, services will be compromised or eliminated … The city of Saratoga Springs is facing a significant revenue decrease in 2021, having already suffered severe reductions in 2020, and we have to be prepared to carry on without that much-needed federal assistance.”
Madigan is projecting that the city will need to close a $6.8 million budget gap in 2021, and is proposing a 10-percent pay cut for most city employees in an effort to reduce or eliminate the need for layoffs.
City Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton said recreation is important, but essential services like police, fire and streets need to be the first priority. All those services also are facing cuts. “The city right now has not answered how it will provide essential services. That has to be the first priority,” Dalton said.
City Recreation Administrator John Hirliman, whom City Council members praised for his creative budgeting in the past, will present ideas for restoring programs at a budget workshop at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 26, at City Hall. The budget doesn’t have to be adopted by the council until mid-November.