How Board of Finance member David Kooris (D) saved the taxpayers $35,000 (and assorted thoughts from tonight's Board of Finance meeting)

March 15, 2019

We’ve written before that local government is often not partisan in the way federal or state government is. 

 

Exhibit A supporting this analysis is Item 3 on this evening’s agenda for the Board of Finance:  Capital Project Appropriation - Central Fire Headquarters Renovation (CP3809), which requested issuing $35,000 in General Obligation Bonds to support appropriations for a central fire headquarters elevator upgrade. 

 

Everyone agrees the elevator needs repairs.  And the item was all set to be approved by the Board.  However, David Kooris (D) spoke up to ask if capital expenditures had already been approved to repair the elevator.  Turns out, approximately $90,000 had already been appropriated and was available to fix the elevator, but the fire department wanted these funds in addition to those already appropriated (at least I think the fire department was the requesting body, although it could have been at a level higher in the city's bureaucracy). 

 

Kooris, noting that "it's the Board's job to determine what capital expenditures to make" (not a direct quote, but close enough), asked for what other purposes the $90,000 was being held back.

 

He did not get an answer.  The Board denied the request.

 

Kooris did not have to speak up and question the basis for the request.  It is unlikely anyone would have challenged him (or anyone else on the Board) about the appropriation after the fact.  The Advocate's Angela Carella, taking notes on the evening's proceedings, would be unlikely to mention such a minor appropriation in her write-up of the meeting.  

 

By all appearances, the Board was set to send off $35,000 to fix an elevator which the fire department is already able to fix.  But, because Kooris asked a question, the taxpayers are $35,000 better off.*

 

*At least for now.  The fire department could always come back to the Board, providing support for their already-apportioned $90,000, and the additional elevator funds.  

 

* * *

 

Other thoughts and observations from tonight's meeting:

 

1) It's a fascinating dynamic, watching members of the city bureaucracies and the Mayor's administration plead their case, and at times seem to beg the Board, to approve the funds that they earnestly believe they need to efficiently and effectively do their job.

 

Case in point:  Kathryn Emmett is corporation counsel for the city of Stamford, and has about as impressive a legal resume as one can find (Harvard University, Yale Law School, superior court judge, partner at her own law firm, and a licensed attorney for almost 50 years). 

 

Her office has been short a director and assistant director of human resources for a number of months, so she submitted a request for $32,300 from the contingency budget to hire an assistant director.

 

You can feel the urgency in the wording of the submission of the request:  "This request is for funding to fill the Assistant Director of Human Resources position for the remainder of this fiscal year.  It is essential that this position be filled as soon as possible.  The Department is currently without a Director and being managed by the Director of Legal Affairs . . ." (emphases added).

 

Nonetheless, for Kathryn Emmett and her 50 years of legal experience to get just north of 30 grand for a temporary assistant director of human resources, she must first answer to the six member-Board of Finance. 

 

This night, she had to answer to Mary Lou Rinaldi (D).  Rinaldi is the swing vote on the Board, and did not provide a receptive audience.  Noting the human resources office has had problems in the past, Rinaldi wanted the head of HR to be hired before an assistant was hired.  Emmett, while agreeing that would be ideal, reminded the Board how difficult a search process that could be, and argued that it was important she be allowed to fill the position now, given her staffing needs and the imminent departure of her interim director.

 

Sal Gabriele (R) suggested that, to fill the staffing need while maintaining flexibility regrading the full-time position, the Board work with a staffing agency to find contract work.  He was reminded, however, that hiring contract labor (excepting seasonal work, as I understood the discussion) runs afoul of the city's collective bargaining agreements with its employees' unions, and therefore was not an option.

 

After some further back and forth, the vote was taken, and the appropriation approved, with the three Democrats who usually vote with the Mayor voting in favor (David Freedman, David Kooris, and Dudley Williams), two members voting against (Gabriele and Rinaldi), and, in somewhat of a surprise, Kieran Ryan (R) abstaining, providing Emmett with a winning margin of 3 in favor and 2 against.

 

To be clear, I think the scrutiny Emmett's request faced is a good thing  At least tonight, the Board was not a rubber stamp, and the people's representatives asked probing questions of the city's employees and the Mayor's officials about why this expense or that employee was justified.

 

2) One of the appropriations (Item 9) was a $100,000 supplemental grant from the state for equipment for the Stamford Bomb Squad and regional HazMat team (hereinafter, the "Bomb Squad").  I can only speculate what that entails. 

 

Why was the grant for the Bomb Squad available?  Because, to quote Karen Cammarota, Grants Officer, requesting approval of the appropriation, "the State had funds they needed to spend."  (This one is a direct quote.)  So, the State issued supplemental grants.

 

The State "hav[ing] funds they needed to spend" (presumably within the fiscal year) does not strike me as a prudent way to run a government.  For those reading, can you please send this to your state representative and/or state senator to get to the bottom of this?  Seems like a prime example of waste in government.

 

3) Some folks requesting appropriations had handouts they passed out to the members of the Board.  Perhaps it's not worth the logistical hassle, but it may make sense to have a way to scan in every document that is distributed so they can be a part of the public record.  For the laypersons in the audience, there weren't always enough copies to follow along with the Board.

 

4) The evening closed with two requests from the Board of Education totaling nearly $1,000,000 in requested appropriations (these requests did not go as planned, as the Board granted one in part and denied the other, asking in both cases for more documentation supporting the numbers behind the requests). 

 

Understanding there are sometimes conflicts with other meetings happening around the same time, it would likely be best if the larger appropriations were handled at the beginning of the meeting, while the Board is freshest and the hour is earliest.

 

 

 

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