In the quest for a tax cut, Schenectady City Council members took a fine-toothed comb to the proposed 2014 budget Friday.
To deliver the tax cut that many of them have said the city taxpayers need, they need a combined $1 million worth of spending cuts and revenue increases.
And by the end of a long Friday evening, they had individually come up with ways that added up to more than $1 million.
By the numbers
The Schenectady City Council is considering these changes to the proposed 2014 city budget
• $7,500 for Retree
• $162,000 for trash collection
• $130,081 for an assistant police chief
• $38,000 for a junior civil engineer or $68,987 for a senior civil engineer
• $10,000 for Social Security contributions
• $10,000 for Medicare contributions
• $100,000 for workers’ compensation
• $125,000 for settlements
• $350,000 to $1 million for health care
• Unknown savings for doing more vehicle repairs in-house
• $230,000 for traffic tickets
The only question is: Will a majority of the council support $1 million in changes?
Finance Committee Chairman Carl Erikson sent his council colleagues home with instructions to sleep on it.
The council will meet again this morning, from 9 to 11 a.m. at City Hall. Erikson has said he wants to at least take a straw poll on each proposed budget change — but he also said he wanted to do that Friday, and did not.
The council plans to officially vote on the new budget Wednesday. They must finish it by Thursday.
On the chopping block are mainly items that taxpayers do not see: money set aside for settlements, workers compensation and other internal expenses.
The biggest public change would be a cut in the Police Department.
Councilwoman Denise Brucker, who has been a champion of public safety, proposed cutting one of the three assistant police chiefs.
That would save $130,081, plus benefits.
Brucker acknowledged that the issue was politically dicey, saying that she could propose it because she was a “lame duck.” She is resigning soon to move to Niskayuna.
But in one of her last acts on the council, she said the department was clearly “top-heavy.”
One assistant chief should be cut “if we’re serious about reducing this budget,” she said.
She added that the only way to achieve significant savings is to cut positions. Eliminating one position not only cuts the cost of that salary, but reduces the city’s total contributions to pensions, social security, health care and other benefits.
The rest of the council was not convinced. They moved on without discussing her idea, and after the meeting they expressed reservations.
“We certainly have a lot of crime in the city,” Councilman Vince Riggi said, adding that he thought the department was already “over-worked.”
Erikson said he would discuss it, but he wasn’t enthusiastic.
“If it’s something that can put the public at risk, you can’t [cut it],” he said. “Will it put the public at risk? I don’t know the answer.”
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield said the council would have to talk to Police Chief Brian Kilcullen before making a decision. She, too, worried about public safety.
And she wondered whether the other two assistant chiefs could take on the tasks of the third.
“How reasonable is that really?” she asked.
The assistant chief isn’t the only position that might be cut. Erikson also proposed eliminating a vacant engineering position — either the junior civil engineer or a senior civil engineer. The savings would be $38,000 or $68,987, plus benefits.
That idea had far less opposition.
There was one easy change in the budget: traffic ticket collection. The city is owed $2.3 million in old traffic tickets, and the Police Department has been working with a collections company that would try to track down those drivers. The company hasn’t started work yet, but said it generally collects about 10 percent of the total owed.
So the council added $230,000 in revenue for next year’s budget.
This morning, council members will also debate the city’s health costs. The city is fully self-insured, meaning that it pays for all health costs. But Riggi said the budget for that line has routinely been overstated by about $1.5 million.
“Which I call over-taxed,” he said.
He called for a $1 million cut from that line, which currently is budgeted at $15.2 million.
“Let them keep $500,000 for catastrophic,” he said. “I think we should take the million out of there.”
Finance Commissioner Deborah DeGenova urged the council not to touch the line.
“I would just caution the council. You are 100 percent self-insured. You have to be able to pay for the catastrophic things that happen,” she said.
Erikson proposed cutting the line by $350,000, and moving additional money out of the line but into a contingency line. If the contingency isn’t needed, he said, it should be moved automatically into the city’s savings account for health expenses.
DeGenova argued against that too, saying the money should be spread out among the city’s various savings accounts. The city can’t move items from one account to another.
“You then have this large pot of money you’re staring at that you might need in other places,” she said.
Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo proposed also cutting part of the city’s $225,000 budget for lawsuit settlements. She noted that in recent years, the city had never spent more than $95,000 in settlements. So far this year, the city has spent $66,000.
Perazzo said the city should be able to cut “a safe amount” and move more of that line into a contingency account, just in case.
But DeGenova said the entire $225,000 might be needed, adding that Corporation Counsel John Polster warned her of a large potential settlement.
Riggi also proposed doing more vehicle repairs in-house, rather than sending the work to the county. He suggested that could save the city money and make better use of the new Bureau of General Services building, which includes repair space. It wasn’t clear how much money that could save.
He also wanted to add $162,000 to the budget to lessen the trash fee hike.
It is proposed to increase $18.50 per unit next year, to a total of $227.50. He said the city could increase the fee by $9.25 per unit instead and still give taxpayers a small tax cut with his $1 million proposed cut in the health costs line.
“I have the million,” he said. “We could give it back to the taxpayers.”