The city’s Board of Finance is preparing for a worst case budget scenario that would slice spending in many departments by as much as 10 percent.
“The economic times are horrible,” said John Smith, a veteran finance commissioner, and the state “doesn’t have a clue” how it’s going to deal with a multi-billion dollar deficit that will surely have a major impact on aid to municipalities.
To keep property taxes from rising at a time when revenues are going down, “we’re going to hav to hurt things bad” in terms of government services, said Janet Moylan, another finance board member.
The financial oversight panel told city department heads this week they want to see scenarios for what happens if they slice spending by 5 percent or by 10 percent in the budget they’re preparing during the next few months.
Mayor Art Ward has already got the city working on a budget that holds spending growth to less than 2 percent, with the aim of preventing any tax hike for the coming year.
But finance board members said that might not be enough given the hard times, particularly since holding taxes in check without cutting into existing programs would likely force potentially damaging reductions in education.
School Superintendent Philip Streifer has prepared a budget that includes three scenarios to cope with sinking aid from the state. They’re supposed to be presented to the Board of Education next week, city officials said.
Smith said he is disturbed that he keeps hearing that the education budget is what’s “going to make or break us” on the overall city spending plan. He said he wants to have more options than simply slicing into schools.
Moylan said the city is facing its “most difficult budget” in at least two decades. She said that finance overseers need to meet and talk through scenarios to try to reach some sort of consensus about how to approach it.
Smith said he wants to know what would happen if the city was told, for example, to lay off 10 people.
Ron Messier, another longtime finance board member, said he would like to see budget planning sessions soon, too.
He said that if the panel waits until March and April, “things go past very fast” and it gets harder to deal with options that need to be explored carefully.
Ward said he’s determined to make sure that cuts don’t affect public safety, but other than that he’s willing to explore any options.
The mayor said that when he asked departments to prepare budgets, he told them to hold increases to less than 2 percent. He said he’s now eyeing increases closer to zero.
The finance board adopts a budget at the end of April. It is given final approval in mid-May at a joint session of finance commissioners and city councilors.
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