Some department heads question Milford mayor’s spending freeze

Mayor Ben Blake has put together a budget for 2019-20 that would see taxes go down slightly for the fourth year in a row, at the same time that he has implemented a spending freeze for city departments. While one city resident gave him an A-plus during a budget hearing this week, in other areas of the city some department heads were starting to wonder if cutting costs is going too far.
The mayor implemented a spending freeze March 14 to ensure a healthy surplus when the fiscal year ends June 30. In a memo to department heads, Blake said the city is past the halfway point of the 2018-19 fiscal budget cycles “and we find ourselves facing new challenges.”
He said the governor’s proposed budget would mean less aid for the city in 2019-20, and there could be new municipal payments toward teacher retirements. He said other costs, including workers’ compensation and utilities, continue to grow, and the city is facing new recycling fees, all leading him, in consultation with the finance director, to “tap the brakes on spending.”
“The last couple of years we finished with a healthy surplus,” Blake said. He wants to see that happen again, so he put a freeze on all new hires, including seasonal/temporary employees. Vacancies will not be filled for the remainder of the fiscal year without his approval, and there is a spending freeze on all non-essential operational or capital expenditures.
Police Chief Keith Mello, who told the Board of Finance earlier in this year’s budget process that he isn’t getting the money he needs to fund the department’s overtime account, isn’t happy with so much reining in on spending. And he’s concerned about the spending freeze.
“We have eliminated the bike patrols that we previously primarily stationed around the library and Wilcox Park area,” Mello said. “Also, we have eliminated for the time being all training that either has a tuition cost or requires the use of overtime to attend, which is the vast majority of all training programs.”
Mello learned this week that the department will not be able to buy any new police cars this year. The department used to buy 12 new cars a year, and more recently six a year.
“This year we will receive zero because of the emergency spending freeze,” Mello said.
Blake said it is this kind of planning that prevents surprises and shortfalls and helps keep taxes stable.
The 2019-20 budget plan that the aldermen will review in coming weeks before voting on in mid-May calls for spending $216.53 million, a proposed hike of about $6.3 million, or 3 percent over the current year. Despite the spending increase, the mill rate would drop 0.06 mills to 27.68, and would mean a $13 tax reduction for the homeowner with the “typical” home with a market value of $311,070.
The mayor said earlier that “a tidal wave of economic development,” and a higher than expected grand list are some of the factors that would keep taxes going down for the fourth year in a row. The budget plan also calls for transferring $9 million from the current undesignated fund balance to the 2019-20 budget to avoid a tax hike.
Greta Stanford, a former alderman and one of the mayor’s former teachers, attended the April 4 budget hearing and said she doesn’t see any other towns reducing taxes. “This is fantastic,” Stanford said, calling the mayor “the epitome of what a mayor should be.”
For reducing taxes, she said, “Mayor, you get an A-plus.”
Public Works Director Chris Saley said he understands that residents are happy to be looking at another tax decrease. He said the mayor isn’t afraid to make tough decisions about spending.
But Saley didn’t say if agrees with those decisions. Rather, he said it’s his job to make it work the best he can. There are jobs he will have to prioritize, and maybe some of the aesthetic jobs will have to be postponed.
Fire Chief Douglas Edo said the spending freeze is frustrating because the budget was approved a year ago and there are still three months left of the fiscal calendar.
“It will make it tight,” Edo said. Firefighters are being sent to training and educational classes now, but that may stop, Edo said.
At the health department, Director Deepa Joseph said the freeze shouldn’t be a problem because the department is fully staffed. Paul Piscitelli, director of the recreation department, said he doesn’t anticipate problems either. He said if an unforeseen expense arises, the department would be able to justify it and he believes the money would be made available.
Blake said he and the finance director will reassess the spending freeze once the state adopts a budget and they have a clear picture of how the revenues and liabilities coming out of Hartford would impact Milford.