If you've ever seen a Schoolhouse Rock video, you know a bill becomes a law after both houses of Congress vote to approve it, and the president signs it into law. Or, if the president vetoes the bill, Congress can override a veto with a two-thirds majority vote in each house.
That's not how it works in municipal government.
Stamford's Budget Process
The process by which Stamford drafts and enacts its budget follows a significantly different process (the city ordinance with the original text, Secs. C8-20-1–11 & C8-30-1–14, can be found here):
First, the head of each city department submits its budget request to the Mayor. These requests include both (1) operating expenses (i.e., the funds used to pay city employees and run the department) and (2) capital expenditures (i.e., the funds used for long term investments and infrastructure).
Second, the Mayor submits a budget to the Board of Finance, consisting of the capital projects budgets and the proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year. Separately, the Board of Education likewise submits its budget for the next fiscal year to the Board of Finance (the Mayor has no formal role regarding the education budget).
Third, the Board of Finance votes to approve, reject completely, or lower any item in the proposed budgets (except for those expenditures which are lawfully required to be made). What the Board of Finance cannot do, however, is vote to increase any part of the budget proposed by the Mayor or Board of Education.
Fourth, after the Board of Finance makes its determinations on the proposed budgets, the Board of Representatives does the very same. The recommendations of the Fiscal Committee are given much deference when the Board of Representatives decides what, if anything to cut. Traditionally, the Fiscal Committee recommends cuts of somewhere in the neighborhood of a few hundred thousand dollars.
Important to note is that budget cuts can take one of two forms: they can be specific line item cuts, where individual city positions or expenses (for example, police officers for the parks in Shippan) are struck from the budget, or unallocated cuts which provide the Mayor discretion on what actually is on the chopping block.
Fifth, the Board of Finance does the math on how much in taxes the property owners of Stamford must cough up in order to satisfy the next fiscal year's expenditures. The mill rate is then set accordingly.
Note, that unlike the federal government, the Mayor has no ability to "veto" a determination of the Board of Finance or Representative with regard to a budget cut. These Boards have the final say on discretionary city spending. (Sadly, 80% of the budget is nondiscretionary spending, such as union contracts and debt service. Which is why it is so important to negotiate reasonable salary and especially benefit packages with city employees.)
Sixth, if additional "emergency" appropriations become necessary during the fiscal year, the Mayor (or Board of Education, as appropriate) can make a special request for additional funds. If four members of the Board of Finance affirmatively vote in favor of such request, and then two-thirds of present voting members of the Board of Representatives, the request will be approved.
City enterprises like the municipal golf courses have a separate budgeting process, not included in the above, which I'll save for discussion another time.
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An "Unprecedented" Budget Cut
Mayor Martin complains of an "unprecedented" $2.2 million budget cut from the Board of Representatives for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2018. So, what exactly does that mean?
The past fiscal year, beginning July 1, 2017, had a total budget of $555 million. The Mayor asked for $569 million--a 2.4% increase. He got $564 million. So the "cut" the Mayor complains of (and the Advocate dutifully reports at face value . . .) is in fact a 1.6% budget increase.
What's interesting is how this "cut" came about.
A few weeks ago, the Board of Finance made its determinations (as discussed in 3, above), and reduced the Mayor's proposed budget by $3.1 million. This is in line with past years--last year, $2.7 million was cut, including $1 million from the operating budget, and $1.7 million from the education budget.
This year's $3.1 million cut came exclusively from the Mayor's operating budget. Then, the Fiscal Committee recommended a $676,000 cut, including the Mayor's proposed park ambassador program. But, the Board of Representatives felt it wasn't enough.
Rep. Anzelmo Graziosi, a newly-elected Democrat (but apparently not a member of Reform Stamford), proposed an additional $2.8 million cut to the operating budget. It failed 14-21, with bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition.
Republican Charles Pia, Jr. decided to split the difference. He proposed a cut of $1.4 million. It passed 21-15. This vote included unanimous support from the seven present Republicans, and six out of eight members of Reform Stamford, including their unofficial leader, Nina Sherwood.
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What Will the Mayor Cut?
The Mayor is right about one thing. These cuts are "unprecedented." But not in the way he suggests. Last Tuesday, an unprecedented coalition of Establishment Democrats, Reform Democrats, and Republicans came together to tell the Mayor the taxpayers have had enough. In particular, Reform promised no more business as usual last November, and so far, they have delivered.
This could forebode continued opposition to wasteful and unnecessary spending from this administration. At least one representative I've spoken with wanted to vote in favor of the larger $2.8 million cut, but has been told that the Mayor keeps score, and if representatives vote against proposals he wants approved, he will deliver retribution in the form of reduced funds and services to any such representative's district. But, if thoughtful opposition to the Mayor is unified, this risk will surely dissipate. He can't take retribution against everyone.
There is one risk from this $1.4 million budget cut, and that's that it is unallocated. The Mayor has significant discretion on choosing where to cut. I fear he will make these cuts in the most painful and disruptive way possible. He can then blame the Board of Representatives for "forcing" him to do so, even though it strains credulity to believe there's not well more than $1.4 million of needless bureaucratic waste in the Mayor's $250 million-plus operating budget. We shouldn't fall for this trick.
So watch out Anzelmo, Charles Jr., and Nina. Retribution may be on its way. But the citizens of Stamford have your back.