The powerful nine-member panel that oversees city spending asked last month for Bristol’s department heads to detail what they’d do if ordered to slice spending by 5 or 10 percent.
But Ward told the supervisors to hold off on the scenarios because he wanted to “avoid a chaotic and panic situation” within city government if it isn’t necessary.
That didn’t sit well with at least some finance commissioners.
“It’s our budget process,” said Ron Messier, a veteran finance board member.
“The mayor doesn’t own the budget process. The Board of Finance owns the budget process,” Messier said.
But Ward produced a memorandum Wednesday from Richard Lacey, a city lawyer, that said finance commissioners have “have a duty to make detailed inquiries” about expenditures and budget proposals, but cannot “direct a department head to make a presentation to the board within present budgetary guidelines.”
Lacey said the mayor can require supervisors to take action, but not the finance board.
Ward said he’s not ready to do that. He’s already asked them to keep their proposed increases close to zero, he said, and he doesn’t want to cause problems for department chiefs who are already straining to cope with tough times.
“I gather you’re not really interested in having our support,” Moylan told the mayor during a budget hearing Wednesday at the library.
Moylan said the finance board needs “to look at the city as a whole” as it works out this year’s city spending plan instead of simply issuing an edict that everyone has to freeze spending, including the Board of Education.
“We need to look at some of the other departments as well as education,” Moylan said, because it may make more sense to slice purchases or programs elsewhere rather than hammering the schools to save money.
Holding the line on school spending would likely mean layoffs of some untenured teachers and staff and perhaps pare programs such as music, officials have said.
“I don’t think that we can cut the Board of Education’s budget that much,” Moylan said.
Ward said the schools are a separate entity and responsible for preparing their own budget. He said, though, that Superintendent Philip Streifer is working closely with him and the finance board.
Moylan called it “mind-boggling” that the school budget can lay out the consequences of major budget cuts, but there’s no way to do the same on the city side without the mayor giving the order.
Cheryl Thibault, another finance board member, said that the impact statements about cuts in other departments would allow decision-makers to know their options.
Without them, she said, “We don’t have the tools in front of us” to make choices.
“We need to do away with the word ‘chaos,’” Messier said. “There might be trauma,” but not chaos.
But given the hard times facing most taxpayers, he said, there’s no reason city employees should be spared the worry that everyone else shares.
Finance Chairman Rich Miecznikowski said the fiscal overseers can push the issue with the mayor.
“Obviously, you people are in favor of this. We can do this,” Miecznikowki told the board Tuesday.
Wednesday, Miecznikowski said the key to resolving the impasse is to avoid bickering and for finance commissioners to ask nicely for whatever they want.
“The mayor will work with us,” he said.
But it’s not clear that Ward will require the impact statements sought by the finance panel.
“At this point in time, I don’t feel the department heads should be made to resubmit their budgets,” Ward said.
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