In a turnaround from last year, the Schenectady City Council will hold public budget discussions as members try to hammer out a final 2014 spending plan.
The meetings will be today from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at City Hall. The council plans to vote on the budget Wednesday.
It’s rare for any member of the public, other than journalists, to attend the budget meetings. But holding them in public does grant attendance to one person who was shut out last year: Councilman Vince Riggi.
Riggi is the only non-Democrat on the council. The other five members met without him last year using a legal technicality created for political parties. They met twice in what they called caucus sessions, which are normally used by large political parties to discuss voting strategy.
Instead, the council met to write the final version of the 2013 budget, which they then unveiled in a public meeting.
Riggi protested, to no avail. But this time, council members said they are not going to keep him out.
“I just decided Vince needs to be part of the conversation. I just genuinely believe that,” said Council President Margaret King, who was not president last year.
Councilman Carl Erikson, chairman of the finance committee, said last year that he wouldn’t mind holding public meetings. But he did not push for them, noting that Riggi was able to offer his ideas at other meetings.
He was happy with the change this year.
“I think it’s good,” Erikson said, adding, “The important part is we’re having discussion. Each year I’ve been on the council, the council as a whole has dug deeper and deeper. The group as a whole is asking a lot more questions.”
Riggi was enthusiastic to be part of that process.
“I am very happy to be part of it,” he said. “I will be in from the ground floor. That’s the way it should be.”
He added that he hopes the public is watching.
“The public has the right to see how their elected officials deliberate so they can make a conscious decision when they go to the polls,” he said.
At the sessions today and Saturday, council members will debate critical financial issues that could shape policies for the next year. Among them are whether to fund an assistant fire chief, restructure code enforcement, or create new programs in which the city pays for new sidewalks and residents’ sewer and water lateral repairs.
To give taxpayers a reduction in their taxes next year, the council would have to cut about $1 million from the budget, either through reduced expenditures or increased revenues.