During her time in office Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan has crafted a fiscal program for Saratoga Springs that is the envy of most municipalities in New York State. The high marks awarded to the city by the bond rating agencies are a particular source of pride. They are an acknowledgement not only of the city’s sound fund balances but of the overall management of its finances.
Now the city faces a financial tsunami. For all her creativeness and perseverance, Commissioner Madigan is confronted by a set of problems that can only be addressed by painful actions. Success is an irrelevant concept.
Commissioner Madigan is a person who takes her responsibilities personally. She is concerned not only for the city employees who may lose their jobs but for our beautiful city which relies on sufficient staffing to maintain its infrastructure, its safety, and its quality of life.
In our form of government, in addition to managing the city’s finances, Commissioner Madigan is charged with crafting the city’s budget. It is hard to overstate the amount of pressure she is under as the city faces an unprecedented financial crisis brought on by the pandemic.
Regrettably, the strain has been reflected in a number of recent episodes.
On May 6 she held a press conference to present her plan to address the crisis. She highlighted a plan that involved furloughing city employees to reduce the city’s spending. By furloughing the employees rather than laying them off, they would continue to be eligible for city health insurance. In addition to the regular unemployment insurance they would all be eligible for federal payments of $600.00 per week until the end of July.
Unfortunately, the press conference involved no written materials. It projected that the city faced a short fall for the year of between $14,000,000.00 and $16,000,000.00 and Commissioner Madigan identified a number of areas where moneys might be found to fill the gap. This included achieving $3,000,000.00 in savings from the furloughs. What the press conference did not address was what drastic measures would have to be taken to try to save $3,000,000.00 in a compressed period of less than three months. In fact, Commissioner Madigan had informed her colleagues on the Council that both the Public Safety Department and the Department of Public Works would need to furlough 45% of their staff while the remaining departments would each need to furlough 20% of their staffs to achieve this savings . As she would subsequently concede, these draconian cuts were unattainable.
At the time, Commissioner John Franck questioned the feasibility of achieving such huge savings through furloughs. In particular he requested a breakdown of the monthly cash flow projections for the year. As he would explain to me later, to assess the city’s condition he needed to know how much time there was before the city would face insolvency. The city’s expenses and its income varies considerably month by month due to the fact that large expenses and major revenue events are not spread out evenly throughout the year. Commissioner Franck is a CPA. He told me that in his work he had been regularly called on to provide consulting to companies facing fiscal crises. He noted that one of his first concerns is to establish how much time there is to work out a solution. In addition strategies often entail managing cash flow.
Commissioner Madigan refused to provide him the numbers. The conflict between the two commissioners became the subject of a Wendy Liberatore article in the Times Union.
“I’m not holding back information when it comes to the fiscal bottom-line,” Madigan said. “Revenues are down and are projected to come in at a $14-to $16-million shortfall, therefore will not meet projected expenses. I have discussed this at length and will continue to do so at city council meetings and press conferences.”
“This is a pattern with him [John Franck],” Madigan said. “I have done my analysis and it’s not so easy to find all this stuff he is looking for.”
“The bottom line is we are not unique,” she said. “We will run out of money, we need to cut expenses and I’ve offered up every bit of cash and projected revenue I am able to meet projected expenses.”
“There are 464 CPAs in Saratoga County, should I send numbers to them too?,” she asked. “If he would like to be the commissioner of finance he can run for this office. … I have held nothing back from any council member or the public or the press.”Times Union May 11, 2020
The reality is that Commissioner Madigan up to this point has not provided the Council or the public the cash flow projections which are critical to assessing any plan to address our short fall.
The Special Meeting Of The Council
In the meantime, the Mayor’s team was feverishly trying to implement the furlough program. As the federal $600.00 supplement would end on July 31, it was essential to make the program happen as soon as possible. The clock was ticking and every day the furloughs were delayed lessened the amount of money the city could save with this program.
The process was complex. The city could not require employees to sign on to the furlough program. It had to be voluntary so the unions representing city employees had to be convinced of the value of the program and a variety of related legal issues had to be resolved. City employees also had to be informed about the benefits of the program and then individuals had to volunteer. This involved many hours for both the Mayor’s staff and the Human Resources department to negotiate what is called a Memo of Understanding with the unions spelling out how the furloughs would be implemented.
The final result of the negotiations was that 43 employees representing 15% of the city’s employees agreed to be furloughed. Their combined salaries were about $450,000.00. Unfortunately this did not represent the actual savings. I am not clear about all of the issues in arriving at this number but I do know that the city was required to pay for 38% of the unemployment benefits provided. The final savings ended up to be $270,000.00.
The Council voted four to one in favor of the Memos of Understanding with the unions. Members of the City Council and City Attorney Vincent DeLeonardis made clear that they were aware that the savings achieved by the MOUs was modest and that it in no way resolved the city’s looming deficit. They emphasized that the MOUs were just the beginning of a very difficult process.
Commissioner Madigan was the dissenting vote. In explaining her “no” vote she told the Council that the amount of savings was utterly inadequate and that the city needed to go back to the unions to negotiate for far more ignoring attorney DeLeonardis statement that the furlough savings were only a first step. She acknowledged that her target of $3,000,000.00 from furloughs had been unobtainable. Apparently, while the mayor’s staff and the human resources were trying to hammer out the furlough program, she revised her plan to call for savings of $1,500,000.00 to $1,700,000.00 in “actual wage and related expenses” over ninety days rather than the end of July. I am not sure what the qualifier “related expenses” means. In addition she had now added $1,500,000 to $1,700,000.00 in savings from reductions in union contractual obligations. I am unclear what this means but added to the “actual wages and related expenses” the target was now $3,000,000.00 to $3,400,000.00.
The reality is that furloughs, unlike layoffs, require that unions agree to them. The City Council cannot dictate that staff involuntarily furlough. The Mayor’s staff did their best to implement the furlough program. Given the unions’ response and the limited time, the $270,000.00 savings was the best they could do with this particular element of the plan to address the city’s looming deficit.
If Commissioner Madigan had voted for the deal but strenuously asserted that it does not get us where we need to go I could understand her thinking although she would be pointing out a reality that everyone on the council was keenly aware of. What I cannot understand is why she would vote against any savings.
How Close Are We To Collapse?
What I found really disturbing was statements Commissioner Madigan made that suggested the city might run out of money to meet its expenses in the near future. She repeatedly referenced a crisis in cash flow (enough money to pay bills) and asserted she needed more money to meet the city’s obligations.
Here again she raises the specter of a potential default:
A Crying Need For Clear Information
Ignorance breeds fear and suspicion. What is most needed is a document that explains to the public not only the short fall for the year but documents when the city might not be able to meet its payroll obligations if drastic measures are not taken. People deserve to understand the truth about what the Council must deal with.
Commissioner Madigan has demonstrated over her terms not only her grasp of the details of the city’s finances but her skill in communicating both the challenges and achievements of her office. I have every confidence that she can provide this community the information it needs to understand both the daunting challenges we must overcome and the kinds of sacrifices that we will need to bear in protecting Saratoga Springs.