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Saratoga charter costs, savings debated

Saratoga charter costs, savings debated

Critics call estimate 'make-believe'
Saratoga charter costs, savings debated
Charter Review Commission Chairman Robert Turner in March.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The question of whether changing Saratoga Springs' form of government will save money has renewed tension between the Charter Review Commission and its critics.

The commission on Monday approved the release of a fiscal analysis that estimates annual savings of $391,000, if the city switches to a city manager form of government. Most of those savings would come from eliminating the top two positions in each of the four city departments that are now run by elected commissioners and their appointed deputies.

But City Council members spent more than an hour at a Tuesday meeting criticizing the analysis, saying it ignores new personnel costs that would come with a city manager and any assistants the city manager would require.

"Does anybody outside the planet Mars believe one person will be able to do all this work?" Accounts Commissioner John Franck asked. "It isn't going to happen."

The $391,000 savings estimate was developed by Charter Review Commission member Jeff Altimari, a retired corporate financial executive. In summary, it projects that the part-time elected commissioners will have their jobs eliminated, along with those of their full-time deputy commissioners. Additional expenses he projects under a city manager government include a higher salary for what would become a full-time mayor, a $125,000 salary for the manager, and salaries for six elected City Council members who would earn $14,500 each annually.

Altimari said he has prepared a longer analysis that is more thorough and explains how support staff will be provided, within the city's current cost structure, and that following the controversy the full document will be included in the charter commission's mailing.

"This [city manager] model is used by nearly 500 communities, and that's because the costs are lower," he said.

The charter commission, which by law operates independently from city government, is scheduled to mail out a copy of its proposal to all city households in early October. The council voted unanimously to ask to see the material before it is mailed out, after Assistant City Attorney Tony Izzo said the council probably can't legally dictate any changes to the information.

Charter Review Commission Chairman Robert Turner issued a statement Wednesday saying he would be glad to meet with council members.

"The Charter Review Commission's intent is to get the information about the charter to the public in the most accurate fashion," he said. "We are happy to sit down and discuss with commissioners who have specific concerns about wording or financial estimates."

The charter proposal, released in March after 10 months of study, calls for establishing a city council-city manager form of government to replace the century-old commission form now in use. The city manager would be appointed by the City Council and would be responsible for preparing and administering the city budget and overseeing the city's finances and other services.

Residents will decide whether to approve the change at a Nov. 7 referendum. Three charter revision proposals over the past 15 years have been rejected by residents.

SUCCESS, which stands for Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential to Saratoga's Success, is a group of residents and former officials who believe the city's economic success is due to its current form of government. That organization on Tuesday called the savings analysis "a make-believe financial impact estimate," and projected a city manager government would cost the city $600,000 more each year, due to costs for personnel like an assistant city manager and an internal auditor.

Charter Review Commission members said savings will come from professionalization and increased coordination among city departments that are now run independently by elected commissioners -- but their projections don't include transition costs or the costs of any future actions a new City Council and manager might take.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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