City Council Struggles to Reach Budget Consensus
Tension escalates among members with different perspectives on 2011 financial plan.
Toward the end of the last budget meeting, City Councilman Steve Mandel reached his breaking point.
Already in the process of packing up his things at around 11 p.m., Mandel got up to get his laptop bag when Mayor Michael Belsky told him to sit down.
"I said, 'You know, Mike, I'm not going to put up with you and listen to you behave that way,'" Mandel said.
This wasn't the first tense exchange to take place during a budget meeting; stress has been mounting as the Highland Park City Council tries to reach a consensus on key aspects of the 2011 budget, which is slated for approval at Monday's final budget meeting at 3 p.m.
"A few people's tempers were flaring," said councilwoman and mayoral candidate Nancy Rotering, "But some of us were confident [in their positions on budget issues]."
There is still much debate over whether to use the city's reserve funds and to raise taxes by 2.85 percent; the City Council also is wondering how to give out pensions they promised while financing necessary city projects.
"I think, right now, our city manager is looking closely to see if there are expenditure reductions that can be made, to see where things are budgeted and where those budget dollars can be reallocated," said Councilwoman Terri Olian, who is also a mayoral candidate.
Use the reserves?
Olian said she did not want to be boxed into a situation where the city does not have the reserve funds available. Rotering, on the other hand, thinks that the reserve funds should be left alone.
"There are those of us who feel that the current trend of spending more than we take in has to stop," Rotering said. "While you can say the economic downturn is responsible, by the same token, we have to live within our means."
For the past three years the city has exceeded its budget, relying on reserve funds to cover the difference is no longer acceptable, Rotering said.
Other possibilities for saving money include consolidating and outsourcing city services.
"Things need to be more modeled after private business and that's why we're looking at outsourcing," Mandel said.
He suggested consolidating police, fire and public works departments between different cities in order to create less administrative overlap and more efficient city governments.
"Those things are going to be tough, and as a city councilman, I work for the citizens," Mandel said. "We don't want to hurt anybody and it's not pleasant to lay people off, but the cost of government has always gone up and we can't ask citizens to do that anymore or they're going to find somewhere else to live."
Another issue that is creating tension on the council is financing pensions.
"The big issue is we have a big gap to bridge," Rotering said. "[The cost of pensions] constitutes a significant portion of the budget. We know that we're trying to fund them fully but given the parameters set out by the state, that really puts a hard hit against us."
Rotering would rather see more money going toward renovating the city's aging infrastructure. While $4.8 million has been allocated for infrastructure improvements over the past 10 years, the value of the dollar has changed significantly.
"We need to keep up with the cost of materials for doing the work," Rotering said.
Tax rate increase
The tax rate remains a tricky situation for the council. Rotering, Mandel and Olian want it to stay the same while Belsky, Councilman Scott Levenfeld and Councilman Jim Kirsch would support a 2.58 percent increase.
"We can't increase taxes, and I'm not on board with this continuing trend of spending down reserves," Rotering said. "If the economic situation were booming and we could replenish with sales tax revenues in the coming quarters [I would support it], but this is not the case."
Looking toward Monday's meeting, Mandel said he expects the majority to stick together.
"I believe it'll be four votes to increase property tax," he said. "We'll put off the deep discussion until next year."
Mandel remained positive about the budget process for 2011, stating that a new council would help in making "massive progress" on the budget front because there will be "increased creativity and passion in reinventing the government."
The budget will be discussed at a special budget meeting Monday at 3 p.m. at City Hall, 1707 St. Johns Ave.