The process Schenectady City Council Democrats followed in making last-minute budget changes sure was ugly, and the results might eventually prove to be, as well. But at least Schenectady taxpayers will catch a break in the meantime, seeing their taxes go up only 1.7 percent next year instead of the 4.2 percent Mayor Gary McCarthy had proposed and the council had seemed prepared to go along with until this week.
There are, of course, a number of questions about how the council reached its final numbers — most pertaining to the private caucus Democrats convened Monday night at the time originally scheduled for a budget vote; evicting the media as well as the council’s only non-Democrat, Vince Riggi, to “discuss,” among other things, eliminating Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett’s job without actually “considering” it, as Councilman Carl Erikson later characterized what took place.
Getting rid of Bennett, who has done a fairly good job restoring respectability to the long-scandalized department and who only last week won the legal right to enact an internal discipline policy that should make it even better, would have been a big mistake. For one thing, the city has to have a public safety commissioner (under state law) in order to impose such a policy, which the city spent a bundle and fought years in court for.
Certainly, Bennett’s $124,000 salary would be worth that much alone, but he will presumably be able to continue running the department as a chief would. Thus hiring a new chief when Mark Chaires retires later this month would not be necessary. Unfortunately, McCarthy seems committed to the redundancy, but his requirement that the new chief live in the city has created a stalemate among three nonresident candidates who passed the civil service test for the job: All live elsewhere and none wants to move.
Under certain circumstances an executive session might have been justified to discuss a personnel matter, but not one excluding Riggi. Moreover, the council had publicly discussed specific layoffs, including employees’ names, earlier in the budget season.
Riggi and other members of the public, including the media, also should have been welcome to any general (e.g. non-personnel) budget discussions. That’s not only according to law, but is the council’s tradition.
As for the last-minute budget cuts the council adopted Tuesday, only time will tell whether they were legitimate, or a desperate charade that will render the city unable to uphold realistic levels of service or create big deficits. It sure sounds as if McCarthy and Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam had artificially inflated some projected spending, perhaps to rebuild the cushion that’s been wiped out in recent years. Under the circumstances, that course might have been defensible, but also should have been discussed — publicly — by all council members, not just the Democrats.