Fire Dept. budget request sets off alarm…literally
The budget review process is designed to set off bells.
That’s expected when the mayor sits down with department directors and goes through their budget requests line by line. Issues are discussed, from personnel changes to the impact of rising gasoline costs and operational changes that could affect the delivery of services.
Those meetings started last week as the administration pieced together a spending package that must be in the hands of the City Council by May 17. Tentatively, Council hearings are set for May 29, 30 and 31. The council must act by June 8, at which time it is returned to the mayor for his approval or veto by June 12. In the case of a veto, the council has three days to override the mayor, as the tax rate must be certified by June 15.
That timetable wasn’t on the minds of Scott Avedisian, Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong and Diane Brennan of the finance department Friday morning.
It was, literally, the alarm bells.
Only minutes after sitting down in the mayor’s office, the throbbing of an alarm resounded through City Hall.
No one moved. Spring air wafted into the sun-soaked office from an open window. There was no smoke, no stampede to evacuate the building, no wale of sirens.
Avedisian made the diagnosis. This wasn’t a fire, but a burglar alarm. He knew the sound from accidentally setting it off during weekend visits to his office.
It would be OK for them to proceed. Armstrong cracked a smile. Was the mayor certain? Because if it was a fire alarm, everyone would have to leave, or they would need to call in a firefighter to post watch. The mayor laughed. He pointed to the ceiling and the smoke and fire detector. It was blinking as it is supposed to.
The mayor got up and closed his office door. The alarm continued. The three went back to the sheets in front of them, but not for long.
“Let me go,” the mayor said leaving the office.
Brennan continued the line of questioning, focusing on the department’s automotive expenses. The chief’s cell phone rang. The budget review came to a halt.
With the alarm still sounding, Avedisian returned with the explanation he had tried to reset it to no avail. He guessed that it had not been completely deactivated when the building was opened and that someone walking through the City Council Chambers triggered a motion detector.
“They must be long gone by now,” the mayor said, imagining the unsuspecting people fleeing the building.
The three of them tuned out the alarm and went back to work.
In a break from tradition, where the mayor and his finance staff sit down with the news media to go over the completed budget, Avedisian opened the doors for media to see the process. There were some ground rules. Discussions regarding individuals, their retirement plans or medical conditions were not to be reported.
This was the second session for this reporter. The first was Tuesday morning, when tax assessor and collector Ken Mallette presented his department budget. Mallette had a larger audience. In addition to Brennan and the mayor, finance director Ernest Zmyslinski and chief of staff Mark Carruolo were at the table.
Both sessions lasted about an hour and both directors had good news for the taxpayers.
Armstrong’s requested budget is $20.5 million, down $700,000 from the current budget. Mallette plans revisions to billing that will expedite the deposit of tax payments and reduce paperwork and mailing costs.
Both departments meet the instructions issued March 6 for level funded budgets. In a memo to department directors, Zmyslinski notes the state’s high unemployment and the economy shows no sign of any significant recovery:
“We ask that you examine the programs and services your department currently provides with the objective of reducing costs or eliminating programs and/or services that are no longer cost effective or not critical to the function of your department.”
Fire overtime has been a persistent budget hot spot, with the department consistently overspending its budget. Ironically, that practice resulting from minimum manning requirements may actually help the city qualify for a two-year federal grant, enabling the department to fill 20 to 25 positions. Armstrong said a group within the department that has successfully researched and won grants has applied for a $3.1 million Safer Grant. The grant can’t be used to replace the salaries of existing personnel, but, because overtime is not considered salary, it can be used to reduce overtime by retaining additional personnel. There are also requirements that the new personnel be retained beyond the grant, which Armstrong feels will happen due to retirements.
Avedisian applauded the ingenuity of firefighters researching grant opportunities. He also touched on a number of other issues, including a provision required of all vendors submitting bids for city work to disclose the names of city employees on their payrolls; that firefighters are making improvements to the kitchen of the Commonwealth Avenue station; and that, at stations across the city, firefighters are spreading mulch and doing yard work at the stations.
In the course of the discussion, it was also disclosed that rescue runs have increased and represent about 80 percent of the 17,000 runs made annually by the department, and that the department spends $244,000 for the rental of fire hydrants from the Kent County Water Authority. Apart from the expense, Avedisian points out taxpayers throughout the city are paying for the rentals, although the hydrants serve only a portion of the city.
While contract negotiations continue with firefighters as well as police and municipal workers, Armstrong did not think benefit and salary costs would be significantly impacted.
To everyone’s relief, the alarm was silenced before the hour-long review finished.
There was no such ringing for Mallette and the review of the tax collector and assessor offices, although the Car Tax Revolt group is not likely to be happy with Mallette’s assessment that there won’t be time to implement a new system of motor vehicle valuations this year, should that be approved by the General Assembly.
Avedisian questioned delays in the processing of tax and utility payments, citing his own case where a check had not cleared. Mallette described events of last July when tax and utility billing converged as a perfect storm, but as of September the department has caught up. Further, he said, the department is implementing a combined real estate and motor vehicle bill that will reduce paperwork as well as a single bill for motor vehicle leasing companies and fleet owners. This is projected to reduce the number of motor vehicle tax bills from 83,000 to 50,000 while even further reducing the number of checks and payments [some are made by credit card] while expediting deposits.
Despite the sputtering state economy, Mallette said the level of tax collections remains good and he does not foresee problems.
“Are we going to make budget?” asked Zmyslinski.
“I believe we will,” answered Mallette.