After Three Hours of Discussion and Debate, Still No Budget
The budget meeting on Tuesday, July 11, lasted for three hours and ended with another defeated attempt to pass a budget for the current year. Clifton is well past the state's deadline and is growing closer to state control of the municipal budget.
The Council met for a mostly respectful discussion, with the four councilors who voted no on the budget last time offering some suggestions for how to trim it further and avoid a six-point tax increase. The budget, at the beginning of the year, indicated a much larger shortfall than what Council is currently grappling with, with an 11-point shortage. City Manager Nick Villano was able to make adjustments, use some money from trust funds and from our remaining ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money, and trim some expenses to bring that number down considerably. Six tax points, he and CFO Joe Kunz said, was the bare minimum the city needs without further cutting services or personnel. Villano has already ordered an end to all non-essential overtime that isn't covered by grants. The new garbage contract alone, which increased dramatically this year, is costing the city the equivalent of 8 tax points.
There was a lot of misunderstanding and confusion regarding what the budgetary numbers represent, evidence of how complicated a municipal budget is. Typically, a governing body relies on the expertise of its Chief Financial Officer and other finance professionals to guide their decisions and help them to adopt a realistic, structurally balanced budget. The current council has been divided on how much to trust the CFO's and the City Manager's recommendations, with several members remaining unconvinced that a six-point increase is inevitable.
At tonight's meeting, Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula went through dozens of line items, indicating places where the budget included allocations greater than what was actually spent last year. Councilman Tony Latona questioned the amount budgeted for revenue from earned interest. A visiting state auditor said that since the city has already collected more money this year than what could be budgeted for, by state law, the Council could petition the state for a waiver that would allow that revenue to be more accurately reflected in the budget. Doing this, Latona said, would save a full tax point.
Councilman Joe Kolodziej argued that further trimming the budget by what he called "smoke and mirrors" would lead the city to increased fiscal uncertainty in the coming years. He said that he would not support a budget that called for fewer than six tax points, indicating that a greater increase is needed to create a more balanced budget.
After a long night of debate, Councilwoman Rosemary Pino made a motion, which she amended slightly following feedback from Latona. Her amended motion included a five-point tax increase, petitioning the State to allow Council to use a higher number to reflect revenue from interest payments, and a directive to Villano to cut an additional $500,000 from the operating budget. Additionally, she wanted to earmark half a million for the Fire Department to adjust their pay guide, as Council did for the Police Department. Latona seconded her motion.
Councilors Gibson, Latona, and Pino all voted yes to this, but Kolodziej, Murphy, and Mayor Grabowski voted no, citing again the need for a minimum six-point increase. Sadrakula also voted no, as she did last time, asserting that the needed money could be found with further cuts, and the motion failed.
The night ended with Clifton still without a municipal budget for 2023.