Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett got to keep his job Tuesday, but an assistant police chief was cut as the City Council slashed the 2013 budget.
In the end, the council cut $2.2 million from the final budget and approved a tax increase of 1.7 percent. For the average homeowner with a house assessed at $100,000, taxes would increase by $23 next year. The tax rate will be $13.58 per $1,000 of assessed property. The 2013 budget will be $78 million.
But the changes didn’t come easily. Councilman Carl Erikson, the Finance Committee chairman, spent an hour in the finance office “grinding and grinding” at the budget to find cuts while the rest of the council waited.
He didn’t win points with Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam, who at one point demanded to know whether he wanted to take her Excel spreadsheet from her to determine budget numbers himself.
She urged the council not to make the deep cuts he proposed, saying that it would not be “responsible.”
Erikson had to persuade the rest of the council to go along with cuts that Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo described as “uncharted territory” and possibly “rash.”
“I think we need to make sure our residents are protected,” Perazzo said. “I think we also have the responsibility of erring on the side of caution … If we can’t pay our bills, what do we do?”
The council did not openly discuss the most controversial of the possible cuts: eliminating the public safety commissioner’s position. Erikson opened the meeting by simply announcing that the Democrats couldn’t agree on the issue.
“At this point, I don’t think there’s support” for eliminating the job, Erikson said. “I’m proposing that we keep that position.”
No one else discussed it.
After the meeting, Council President Denise Brucker told council members to say that they had only had an “informal discussion” about Bennett’s job. Erikson said the council “discussed” eliminating the position but did not “consider” it.
“It wasn’t a serious discussion,” he said. “I think it was more of, ‘What do we need?’ ”
He said he felt strongly that the city needs a commissioner to enact internal discipline, which the city won the right to do just last week after years of court cases.
Bennett was relieved to keep his job, which he sees as turning the Police Department into a top-notch agency.
“I’m fulfilling the mission for which I was hired,” he said. “We made a lot of progress. I want to get to the end zone.”
But losing an assistant police chief in the process will hurt the department, Chief Mark Chaires said. Chaires noted that the budget previously cut an assistant chief, so he’s losing two in total.
“You can cut, cut, cut, but at some point cutting is going to damage the agency,” he said.
Assistant Chief Brian Kilcullen, who is one of the chiefs who will be demoted to lieutenant on Jan. 1, was philosophical. He’s hoping to be promoted to chief, and now he’s facing demotion instead.
“I don’t take it personally,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but necessary.”
The other assistant chiefs will simply do more, he said, adding that the public probably won’t notice a difference in service.
The council also didn’t discuss the assistant chief cut. But other cuts left some of them unsettled.
Erikson and Councilman Vince Riggi said about $1.5 million in the budget was “overstated.” They pointed to several areas, including vehicle leases. The budget included payments for 2012 police cars, even though the council decided not to purchase those cars, and increases in existing leases beyond the current lease amount.
The budget for vehicle leases also assumed the city would pick up every vehicle on Jan. 1, even though most vehicles arrive months after they’re ordered.
Other overstated amounts included dental insurance, which was budgeted much higher than the city has ever paid before. Even after Erikson added in a 20 percent margin for “a run on root canals,” the item was still $200,000 higher.
Riggi said he thought Alam deliberately “padded” the budget to create a surplus.
“So at the end of the year, it looks better,” he said.
Erikson said the changes were innocent, suggesting that Alam made overly conservative estimates on some items and hoped the council would buy more vehicles to make up for the ones they didn’t buy this year.
Alam urged the council not to cut those items out. Perazzo also expressed concern that the council’s estimates might be too low.
So Erikson proposed that the council put half of their cuts into a savings account in case of unexpected expenses next year.
Council members agreed that if that money isn’t needed, they will use it for deficit reduction and tax reduction next year.
That change left the city with a $78 million budget, down from $79 million this year, and a tax levy of $31.3 million. The budget did not go down $2.2 million because the council kept $1.2 million in the savings account.
The council approved the budget by a vote of 5-1, with Riggi voting no. He wanted to use more of the cuts to reduce taxes this year, rather than holding onto the money until next year. But no other council member was willing to support that.
“I really think we’re overcharging the people,” he said after the meeting.