The Saratoga Springs Finance Department has been holding a series of public budget workshops to review the 2023 spending plans for each department. The Wednesday, October 19 workshop held to discuss the Department of Public Safety budget became particularly contentions with heated exchanges between Finance Commissioner Minita Sanghvi (D) and Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino (D).
It Got Ugly at the Public Safety Budget Workshop as This Video Documents
Communication Breakdown in the Finance Department
The following video reveals a significant management problem in the Finance Department. Readers should understand that crafting a city budget is the most critical function that that office carries out.
On September 22, 2022, Public Safety Deputy Commissioner Jason Tetu sent a second revised budget proposal to his counterpart in the Finance Department, Deputy Heather Crocker.
Apparently, Ms. Crocker ignored Tetu’s email.
In the following video, Commissioner Sanghvi tells Montagnino she is unaware that the Public Safety Department submitted a revised budget request. She tells Montagnino that if he sent such a revision, in addition to her Deputy, the revision should have been sent to herself, the Interim Budget Director, and her Executive Assistant. She made the mistake of telling Montagnino that it should have been sent to “us.” This gave him an opening to express outrage and launch a blistering attack.
I am sympathetic to Montagnino’s frustration in assuming Crocker, as Deputy, would have informed the key people in her office about the new budget revision and reviewed it. On the other hand, Montagnino’s unrestrained rant was clearly meant to intimidate rather than inform.
Commissioner Montagnino’s Cynical Public Relations Move
In an article in the Times Union, Commissioner Montagnino accused Sanghvi of “defunding the police.”
He was referring to the fact that the budget for his department had police positions that had not yet been filled which were eliminated in Sanghvi’s proposed budget. Commissioner Sanghvi’s approach to the budget was to eliminate all vacant positions without bothering to review and evaluate them. All departments were subject to this policy. DPS and DPW are the largest city departments and lost the most positions.
This is an example of the cynical and ruthless behavior that Montagnino regularly indulges in, and it has worked well for him in getting the media coverage he wants. The assertion that Sanghvi is attempting to “defund the police” was dramatic and headline grabbing but hardly reflects reality.
A Thoughtful Presentation by Fire Chief Joseph Dolan
This video clip from the workshop is rather long. It spans twenty-three minutes. Fire Chief Dolan carefully goes through why essential items that were cut from the Fire Department budget need to be addressed. He points to items that were cut that the city is legally required to pay for, for instance salaries are incorrectly listed in the budget and required equipment and training are not accounted for.
The city will be getting sixteen new firefighters funded for three years by a federal SAFER grant. He explains that the required money for their equipment and training was somehow left out of Sanghvi’s proposed budget. He also notes that money is also missing needed to maintain the new building, including utilities.
As a layperson, I lack the expertise to assess all the items Chief Dolan asserts he needs. What strikes me, however, is that it became clear that most of this was being discussed for the first time. If a salary for an existing position in the proposed budget is wrong, one way or the other, it should have been resolved easily and well before a workshop. If the city needed to equip each of the new recruits and the budget had overlooked this, it should have been spotted well before the workshop and resolved.
This is why the department budgets were scrutinized thoroughly early on under previous administrations to resolve as many issues as possible before the workshops were held.
This year, the departments were notified in June to submit their requests by August 12.
It was apparent that, despite the departments having submitted their budgets in August, the time to properly analyze and work with the departments was squandered. For example, rather than analyze whether a vacant position was, in fact, needed by engaging the departments over the issue, Commissioner Sanghvi’s proposed budget simply assumed that all 2022 funded positions that had not been filled could be eliminated. This approach by the Finance Department was simple. It was quick. Regrettably, it failed to consider the circumstances as to why the position might have been vacant and whether the position met some critical need and left that all to be debated, sometimes heatedly, with the end of November date to adopt the budget looming.
Other departments have attempted to reverse the proposed budget’s elimination of positions that are not currently filled. Commissioner Sanghvi, at the workshops, has been conspicuously unwilling to publicly concede reversing these cuts.
Not so with her response to Montagnino’s bullying. In the following brief video, she assures Monagnino she will accede to his demand not to cut the six vacant positions in his department.
The budget Deadline Is November 30
The City Charter designates the period from November 1 through November 30 as a time for the “Council to continue to adjust the proposed budget.”(4.4.6) A second public hearing is required to be held during this time “after all adjustments have been made and agreed on.”(4.4.6) If Sanghvi’s colleagues want to reject her final budget, they must come together and agree on an alternative. If they cannot accomplish this by November 30, then by default, Sanghvi’s proposed budget will become the 2023 budget.