SARATOGA SPRINGS — The pandemic-ravaged proposed 2021 Saratoga Springs city budget could require the city laying off dozens of police officers and public works employees, in addition to 20 firefighers, the City Council was told during a series of budget workshops last week.
Addressing proposed funding reductions to their departments as the city seeks to close a $6.8 million projected budget shortfall, department leaders said the police department and public works departments would each need to layoff 30 people. The fire department would need to lay off 20.
City officials hope ways can be found to reduce the number of layoffs as their budget deliberations continue.
For each department, the worst-case scenario would involve cutting 30 to 40 percent of the work force. Between the police, fire and DPW, they provide the most essential of city services, and also have the largest payrolls.
Under the city’s budgeting system, city Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan has given each department a spending reduction goal without saying how it should be met. The departments outlined what they’d have to do to meet the goal last week, and it involved massive layoffs.
The city’s sales tax, room tax and other revenues have all taken downturns this year due to the economic havoc caused by the COVID-19 public health crisis, which has shuttered businesses, caused layoffs and shaken people’s willingness to be in public and spend money.
“While I understand the city is in a financial crisis because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel obligated to point out the devastating impact that this budget will have on the police department,” Police Chief Shane Crooks said at a workshop Wednesday.
Of 77 police officer positions, Crooks said 30 would need to be eliminated if there are no changes in the budget. That would mean reducing the services that police provide, increasing overtime costs, and basically eliminating the department’s ability to conduct long-term investigations, Crooks said.
“This is basically in my mind a doomsday scenario we have listened to,” Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton said after Crooks’ presentation.
Department of Public Works Business Manager Michael Veitch told the council that elimination of 30 positions would mean less summer road maintenance, slower responses during storm cleanups, and less maintenance at city-owned facilities including City Hall, the Canfield Casino, and city parks.
Veitch presented several ideas for the department to generate new revenue for the council to consider, including borrowing money from the city water and sewer funds, which have available balances. Any new revenue could potentially offset some job cuts.
“The comprehensive budget as proposed will result in real reductions in services and to the DPW workforce,” said DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco. “It is alarming and dangerous to consider how limited DPW will be in dealing with blizzards, snow and ice storms, and heavy wind and rain. We just will not have the employees to deal with these emergencies, and we just cannot have that happen.”
Fire Chief Joe Dolan said making personnel cuts would not only mean more overtime costs to maintain a 10-person minimum in staffing per shift and performing fewer fire code inspections, but would also hamper the city’s ability to dispatch a second ambulance when there are two emergency medical calls at the same time.
All the proposed cuts are based on the preliminary budget submitted last month by Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, which totaled $41.9 million. That figure is down $6.8 million from this year’s budget, in keeping with an expected $6.8 million reduction in revenue.
While Madigan’s budget includes a six percent property tax increase, it doesn’t assume any future federal pandemic aid coming to the city, nor account for other cost-saving measures or revenue-increasing measures the departments might take. Those prospects will be discussed in coming weeks.
In her initial budget, Madigan proposed that all city employees take a 10 percent cut in salary and benefits to reduce the number of possible layoffs, but such a reduction would require labor union approval, and the idea has at least informally been rejected by the city employee unions.
Madigan said the city has to make hard decisions to stay within its anticipated revenue, since the budget is required to be balanced.
“We know everyone needs more than what the budget includes in the comprehensive budget, and what’s available right now in terms of our revenue,” Madigan said.
In the next phase of budget review, Madigan and other council members will meet to review specific ideas for what expenses can be cut or revenues raised.
“Each department has passionately described its needs and the sacrifices it has been asked to make, and many of them are insurmountable, I recognize that. It’s a very difficult budget,” Madigan said. “I hear your concerns and share them as I put together a budget that the city can afford with the revenue that we have. The situation we have with revenue is an inescapable situation that is being felt nationwide.”
In Washington, D.C., congressional Democrats have included billions of dollars in federal aid in proposed pandemic stimulus legislation, but the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate has resisted including aid to state and local governments in any relief bills. Talks on the issue have broken down.
The City Council will hold a public hearing on the preliminary budget at 7 p.m. Monday in the third-floor music hall at City Hall. After that, further internal budget deliberations and workshops are expected.
“This budget is probably going to go right to the Nov 30 (deadline) because there is a lot of work to do,” Madigan said.