Tuesday, November 29, 2005

City Council Wants Budget Delay

Anticipating a new administration on Jan. 1, City Council members urged delay of budget passage until after the New Year.

The delay could mean that city taxpayers will get bills in February and May instead of in January and April. The council would have to vote on appropriations for January to run the city and would also have to accept the risk that the state might set the tax rate for the city due to the late budget passage. The 2006 fiscal year began July 1.

Any budget amendments would be watered down because they would only affect a few months of the fiscal year and proposed layoffs would not become effective until there was barely a month to spare, officials said at an agenda session Monday (Nov. 28, 2005).

City Council President Linda Carter and Councilman Cory Storch advocated early budget passage, but were outnumbered by Councilmen Don Davis, Ray Blanco and Rayland Van Blake, who wanted the hold-off.

The council has been reviewing the budget for months and has discussed various adjustments proposed by a Finance Committee, including personnel reductions.

The budget as introduced in September reflected a 2.7 percent increase, which rose to 7.34 percent with bad news from Trenton regarding disallowed revenue sources and $425,000 in additional state pension costs.

But then the Finance Committee recently suggested changes that would drop the tax hike to 1.6 percent.

Introduction of proposed budget amendments fell through Monday in part because they were not published in a timely way due to a mix-up over holiday printing schedules for legal notices. But the larger force was the wish of a council majority – Blanco, Davis, Van Blake and Rashid Burney – to put off the budget decisions until the new administration takes hold.

The change in course fell a bit heavily on the shoulders of Chief Financial Officer Pete Sepelya, who had begun his final leave toward retirement. With the budget process back up in the air, Sepelya will have to stay on the job to see it through.

“So Pete, you’re not going – you haven’t got a clean bill of health from this council. So you’re staying,” Blanco joked.

Finance Director Ron West said the city can stay afloat for three months until the delayed tax revenues start coming in. Asked whether the city could send out estimated tax bills, he said any partial payments would cause a lot of extra work in the tax office to make sure all the figures were reconciled.

“I’m not sure we want to put the taxpayers through all the process of reconciliation,” he said.

Carter made numerous pitches for the council to continue honing the budget, but only Storch backed her up. Carter held out the possibility that the budget could still be passed this year if Mayor-elect Sharon Robinson-Briggs and representatives of the new administration met with council members to iron out the details.

“I want to make sure we build upon what has been done,” Carter said.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city council, budget