Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan has written the following analysis of costs associated with the proposed charter. The charter which would change the Saratoga Springs city government from the current commission form to a city manager form will be on the ballot on November 7.
Saratoga Springs voters will decide if we should change our form of government via the adoption of a new Charter this November. Our current commission form of government works extremely well for small cities, is quite democratic, and is often compared to parliamentary systems. Some medium-sized cities, such as Portland, OR, find that it works well for them.
Over the years bi-partisan City Councils have, through open and transparent public debate (sometimes contentious, as democracy tends to be), improved and enhanced services while maintaining one of the lowest property tax-rates of any city in NYS. We have one of the most stellar municipal bond ratings in the country. We have achieved the highest score of any city in NYS in our recent review by the NYS Comptroller.
Adoption of the proposed Charter, changing to a council-manager form of government, would require significant change management and will increase the costs of city government. Those who think it will lead to new day, a new beginning for the city haven’t been paying attention.
Proponents of change claim it will lead to savings. I am skeptical – as Finance Commissioner I am very familiar with the costs of city government, and their numbers don’t add up. Savings will allegedly come from the elimination of Deputy Commissioners. Ignore for the moment if this is feasible, and note that, according to Paragraph 8.09.B, the proposed charter lets the City Manager decide whether or not to eliminate Deputies. Assuming such savings seems imprudent. The costs of the required new City Manager, Assistant City Manager and an Internal Auditor or additional audit firm (an unnecessary expense given our size) will cost the City roughly as much as the 5 Deputies currently do. Absent a Deputy Finance Commissioner we would need to create and fill a civil service, union Director of Budget Operations position, which will certainly cost us more than the current Deputy Finance Commissioner. The proposed charter almost triples the Mayor’s annual salary while reducing the work required of that position. It also adds 2 additional salaried Council members. So where are these savings? The Charter Commission have said health insurance is a material area of savings; their arguments misrepresent the actual costs involved by assuming all Council members elect the most expensive coverage possible, which is not the case now and has not been the case in recent history, but even so they could be addressed in far less draconian manner than changing our form of government.
Proponents of this proposed charter claim it will create efficiencies by assigning job duties across City departments. This betrays a complete lack of knowledge of civil service and collective bargaining, while ignoring the monumental tasks and legal expenses of making this fantasy a reality. It is also based on a faulty premise. Job duties are specifically outlined and approved by the Civil Service Commission and the Council with an eye towards being as efficient as possible. Despite what you may hear from the Charter Commission, there is no duplication of effort across Departments, and we do not have employees sitting around doing nothing – far from it. Our Departments are streamlined; this is why our property tax rates are so low and so stable. The Commission continually states that we have 5 payroll departments, we have 1 and it sits in the Finance Department. They state that the Fire Department should not plow their own driveway, but of course they should as they need to be ready at any given moment to respond to an emergency call. These are just a few examples of the unrealistic cost-saving claims made by the Charter Commission.
Regardless of the desirability of the proposed form of government relative to the current one, I am here to tell you that making this change – with this proposed charter – is not going to save the city and its taxpayers any money. It will increase costs. The next time you hear a proponent of change claim otherwise, please demand real concrete evidence as you make your decision before heading to the polls in November.