Missing Murphy, City Council Carries On
The regular session of Tuesday’s City Council meeting opened with a beautiful and poignant vase of red roses on the dais behind Councilwoman Lauren Murphy’s nameplate. Mayor Ray Grabowski called for a moment of silence in her memory, followed by a reading from the Qu’ran by Imam Chauldhary. As expected, with the meeting falling just days after the councilwoman’s death, there were many mentions of her sad passing and brief tributes to how well-respected she was in the community.
During his council privilege, Grabowski spoke of his dear friend, acknowledging the empty seat next to him. “She was so sensitive and had such a big heart,” he said. Grabowski spoke about her tireless work with the homeless and said that she would be so happy to know that the Code Blue warming center was open. “Lauren was the most dedicated person I’ve ever known,” he concluded.
Once the meeting was underway, the two biggest issues had to do with the budget and the fallout from the new parking ordinance.
Perhaps foreshadowing how budget talks will go this year, Councilman Joe Kolodziej motioned to table the first reading of the COLA ordinance to establish a CAP bank, following discussions during the work session and Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula’s request to hold it until their first budget meeting. There was no urgent need to introduce or vote on the ordinance on Tuesday and a willingness to discuss it is a positive for the future of the city budget.
The ordinance is important because municipal expenditures cannot be raised by more than 2.5%, the statutory maximum, except when the governing body passes a COLA ordinance, as almost all do. This increases the cap base by 3.5% and gives municipalities greater flexibility in how they balance their budgets by allowing them to bank any unused portion of the 3.5%. That banked money is then available for the next two years and gives municipalities the ability to cover unexpected expenses without cutting things from the budget or needing a referendum to ask the voters if it’s ok to exceed the cap.
The council is currently grappling with a surprise increase in liability insurance, which has helped to push spending beyond the cap. This council declined to adopt the COLA ordinance for the 2023 budget; had they adopted it as they had in previous years, this extra expense could have been covered by the banked money. Instead, they are faced with three options:
- Don’t adopt the ordinance and cut the budget by $2.1 million in order to stay within the appropriation cap. This could include cutting services by reducing the workforce or, as Councilman Tony Latona argued, might be accomplished by trimming unnecessary expenses from the budget.
- Adopt the ordinance and cut the budget by only $900K to get down to the cap.
- Hold a referendum in April and ask voters for permission to exceed the allowed cap.
At the first council meeting of 2024, Gibson, Latona, and Sadrakula all voted against the introduction of the COLA ordinance during their work session. Following its tabling at Tuesday’s meeting, it is still unknown whether or not the council will adopt it for the 2024 budget.
“It is my hope that after discussion at our first budget meeting, a majority of the council will recognize the importance of the COLA ordinance as a multi-year budgeting tool and we don't repeat last year's mistake of not establishing a bank.” Kolodziej said.
The new parking ordinance, approved by Council, changed the requirements for parking permits from $1 for the life of the car to $10, renewed each year. Permit parking is required only on certain streets - generally, those located close to train stations or schools - and residents on those streets are required to purchase permits to park on their streets. Visitors to their homes also need a permit.
It was clear during the work session, where several councilors spoke about the calls, texts, and emails they’d received, that the rollout on January 1st had not been smooth.
Sadrakula said that “the rollout of this was, at best, poor” and Latona suggested that the ordinance be rescinded for 90 days while Administration worked out the kinks. City Manager Nick Villano agreed that there was room for improvement going forward and said that he would have a discussion with the police chief and the traffic department.
Sadrakula suggested that the city investigate which streets still need permit parking, pointing out that some likely don’t want or need it. Councilmen Gibson and Latona both pointed out that the Council’s job is to make life better for the residents and not to punish them with tickets for parking on their own streets.
Once the public was allowed to address the council in the regular session, the permit woes became much clearer and more personal, as several residents came to the podium to talk about how 2024 began with an expensive parking ticket...or several.
One of them, a busy mother to three young children working two jobs as a teacher and a coach, spoke emotionally about the impact on her family. She got a ticket parked in front of her own house when she left her driveway free for her disabled child’s therapist. “It’s not something I should have to worry about,” she said. “This did not make us feel welcome in our community,” she continued, her voice wavering. Pointing to the city’s use of robo-calls for other important news she concluded, “I would have hoped the town would have communicated better.”
The City Council will have its first budget meeting on Tuesday, January 30th at 6 pm.