Aldermen debate, cut budget by $150,000
By Gordon Dritschilo
sTAFF wRITER | January 01,2014
The city’s Board of Aldermen managed to get about $150,000 in expenses out of the city budget, but took out about $300,000 in revenue out as well.
Cutting a proposed new position and planned equipment purchases brought the budget down from Mayor Christopher Louras’ proposal of roughly $19.7 million to $19,551,253. That number will appear on the town meeting ballot in March.
However, in an effort to restrict the increase in the water and sewer rates, the Board of Aldermen voted Monday night to end interfund transfers of about $300,000 from water and sewer to the main city budget. City Treasurer Wendy Wilton said that loss of revenue was the equivalent to an increase in general fund spending amounting to 3 cents on the tax rate.
The first lengthy discussion of the evening — which went six hours, with the board adjourning at midnight — dealt with police staffing levels and recruitment strategies. Chief James Baker successfully argued to maintain funding for currently vacant positions, but the board cut $9,000 voted for signing and recruitment bonuses.
Alderman Ed Larson pushed against the bonuses, saying that while he could support such a practice, he wanted to at least see a written policy on how it would be conducted first. The motion to remove the $9,000 from the budget passed with just Alderman William Notte dissenting.
Alderwoman Sharon Davis questioned the need to fund positions that were not filled, though she said she understood that keeping some funding in place gave the department flexibility for paying out retirements.
“Eight to nine vacancies is a lot of flexibility,” she said.
Baker said there were only five vacancies, and he had candidates lined up to fill four of them. He also pointed out he had made 18 new hires in the last 12 months — more than a third of the department’s staff.
“I anticipate being near to full very shortly,” he said.
Alderman Gary Donahue tried to level-fund Rutland Free Library, making a motion, seconded by Alderman Jon Kiernan, to cut the 3.5 percent increase to the nonprofit’s budget.
“There’s nothing that the library does that the private sector or other portions of the city, including the historical society, can’t do,” Donahue said.
Donahue said he did not want to do away with the library, but that he felt it was an appropriate place to “draw a line in the sand” against budget increases.
Kiernan said he thought the city had been highly supportive of the library but outlying towns who contract to use it had not been pulling their weight because they did not share in the bond that paid for recent renovations.
“The people that are using it should maybe pick up more of the slack,” he said.
The idea found no traction with the rest of the board.
Notte pointed out that the city pays for improvements to the building because it owns the building, while Alderman David Wallstrom said that much of the increase was due to contractual obligations to personnel, meaning the library would have to cut programming. He also said that the amount paid by outlying towns is based on the city’s contribution, so a cut by the city would have larger implications to the budget.
Larson spoke of how widely-used the library is, and contradicted Donahue’s argument that its services should all be available elsewhere.
“This is a resource we need to support because it supports us,” he said.
The motion failed, with nobody joining Donahue and Kiernan.
The most intense debate was around the creation of a new position, placed in the Department of Public Works catch basins budget, dealing with stormwater compliance.
The position was created to take on the responsibilities the city agreed to in a deal on its dispute with the state over Moon Brook’s classification as an impaired waterway.
“(Public Works Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg) has determined, given his knowledge, given his expertise, we need a body to do this,” Louras said. “At some level, we are going to have to hire an individual or expect some individual within the department to take it on. ... I agree with the commissioner that it necessitates someone in the staff who does not currently exist.”
Several board members were unconvinced. Alderwoman Sharon Davis said that workers in many fields frequently have to take on new responsibilities, and that she saw no reason the department could not absorb the additional duties as-is. Alderman Chris Siliski said this was the third new position he had seen created in three budget cycles.
Louras responded to the latter argument by saying Siliski was forgetting the number of positions cut in the early days of his administration. Louras argued he was working to make City Hall leaner, with resources focused where they needed to be.
“I don’t want to say it’s wrong outright to make the assertion we’re adding new bodies,” he said. “Don’t forget bodies were cut.”
Donahue said he was opposed in principal to creating a position in response to a state mandate.
“We have to push back on the state a little bit with these things,” he said. “If we do everything the state wants, we have no power.”
Wennberg interjected that pushing back was exactly what the city had done, being the only community to take the state to court regarding new stormwater regulations. He and other board members pointed out that the requirements were part of a settlement designed to forestall other mandates expected to cost the city in the tens of millions.
“We have fought them and we have fought them to a draw,” Wennberg said.
In a roll call vote on approving the position — which cost roughly $94,000 in salary and benefits — Donahue, Davis, Kiernan and Siliski joined Alderman John Cassarino in voting “no,” while Notte, Larson, Aldermen David Wallstrom and Tom DePoy and Alderwoman Melinda Humphrey voted “yes.” That left Board President David Allaire to cast the deciding “no” vote.
A motion to cut the position was then approved 6-4 as DePoy switched sides, preventing the need for a tie-breaker.