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Local

'I think we need to put on the brakes': Geneva budget battle to continue at special meeting

GENEVA – Aldermen are expected to vote on the city’s fiscal year 2016-17 $91 million budget at a special City Council meeting Monday – but not until after they continue hashing out their differences.

The special meeting will take place after the end of the regular 7 p.m. Committee of the Whole meeting.

The proposed spending plan is 1 percent less than what was budgeted the previous year, Mayor Kevin Burns said. 

City staff responded to budget challenges by keeping operating budgets close to zero increases, continuing a hiring freeze and not providing education reimbursement, among other efforts, budget documents state.

Still, cost-cutting has dominated the budget discussion the past several meetings, with 5th Ward Alderman Tom Simonian taking a lead role in challenging rising costs. 

Simonian advocated reopening union contracts to get concessions on salaries and benefits. Burns had countered that his comments were “grounds for a hostile work environment.”

While Burns and 1st Ward Alderman Mike Bruno read portions of letters from city employees feeling the brunt of Simonian’s comments, Simonian responded with a written apology, as well as letters he received from constituents supporting his efforts.

Resident Terry Flanagan wrote that the city’s budget has been growing, while the tax base is shrinking.

“Have we created a hostile work environment? I don’t think so,” Flanagan wrote. “We have, however, created an expensive one and growing more expensive every year. I think we need to put on the brakes. ...The fact that the budget is balanced is cold comfort when we are paying more for electric, sewer and water, trash pickup, and taxes.”

Flanagan is the husband of former 4th Ward Alderman Dorothy Flanagan.

Resident Dick Graff, also agreeing with Simonian, wrote, “It is time for reform and change.”

“The unsustainable pensions, contracts and expenses one day will devour us if we don’t change how things are done now,” Graff wrote. “We can’t tax ourselves into continued solvency, as some would choose, such as [a] sales tax hike and restaurant tax, etc.”

Earlier this week, aldermen voted 7-3 to defund the position of assistant city administrator/director of administrator services as a cost-savings measure in the new budget. First Ward Aldermen Tara Burghart and Bruno, and 5th Ward Alderman Craig Maladra voted no.

Assistant City Administrator Stephanie Dawkins will become the city administrator June 13. The city’s online notice seeking her replacement states the salary range is from $93,225 to $132,688, depending on experience.

Aldermen also voted, 6-4, to remove the 2 percent restaurant tax – called the places for eating tax – from the new budget. 

Fourth Ward Alderman Ron Singer, Burghart, Bruno and Maladra voted no.

Aldermen said they would prefer a fall referendum seeking to raise the city’s sales tax by a half-percent.

Dawkins warned that the loss of $300,000 anticipated from the restaurant tax has to be made up somewhere else or the budget is not balanced.

Aldermen said if voters do not approve, they would revisit the restaurant tax and amend the budget.

“The diversity of ideas with respect to the fiscal year 2016-17 budget are always welcome,” Burns said. “I hope that we can tamp down the division that has percolated these last few weeks and return to focusing on the goals and objectives that the community expects of us.”

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