By Hillary Harvey
Standing in Kingston’s City Hall Common Council Chambers on September 24th, John Tuey, the City’s Comptroller, offered the roomful of citizens a general analysis of what a budget is and what it does. This was the annual community budget forum – an initiative of the Noble Administration. The City’s Comptroller is appointed by the Common Council but works with the Mayor on developing the budget. After the forum, it was still unclear what the 2020 proposed budget contained.
Mayor Steve Noble then presented his proposed 2020 budget on October 17th. The budget was available online the next day. In his presentation, the Mayor primarily discussed what a budget generally does and offered basically a campaign speech about budgetary achievements of the past. He outlined to the Common Council in a letter his highlights of the 2020 Recommended Budget: a 0% tax increase; the tax levy remains at about $17.65 million for the fifth year in a row; 0% increase in sewer rates; no layoffs; 12 full-time positions added or expanded including a full-time bilingual Clerk, a full-time Director of Arts & Cultural Affairs, three positions at DPW including a Tree Maintenance Technician; major infrastructure projects to be completed or underway in 2020; and a Low Fiscal Stress Score (6.7 out of 100). In the budget, the Mayor also proposed Wi-Fi in the Kingston parks, essential DPW equipment, a new fire engine, and a skatepark at Hasbrouck Park, among other things. But the presentation wasn’t a line-by-line read of the 178-page budget document… thankfully.
The line-by-line read began on October 28th at 6:30p when the Kingston Common Council’s Finance Committee held the first of several public meetings that week to discuss the budget and ask questions of departments such as the Kingston Police Department, the Department of Public Works, the Kingston Fire Department, and the Parks & Rec Department. But at 6p that night, before those discussions began, the Common Council held a public hearing on the proposed budget. Not surprisingly, only five people attended. Of those, only two spoke: the DiFalcos, a political-hopeful power couple. Ellen DiFalco is running for Mayor on the Republican and Independence Party lines. Joe DiFalco is running for Ward 3 Alderman on the Republican and Independence Party lines.
The Common Council’s public hearing on the Mayor’s budget proposal was originally scheduled for Thursday, October 24th – the same night as the final Mayoral debate. It was then rescheduled for Monday, October 28th. The public notice in the paper was incorrect. The notification on the City’s website initially didn’t mention what the hearing was on, and the agenda for it was blank. When I asked the Council members about that, I was told that the hearing was on the budget, as the agenda indicated. And when I pointed out that the agenda was blank, I was told that was because it was an open public hearing.
Here in Kingston, we have ample opportunity for public engagement busy work: surveys that don’t allow for comments and don’t relate to the topic specifically; participatory workshops and charrettes with facilitators who don’t buy into it and where the public feedback is never seen or discussed again; local committees whose feedback is used to simply justify an outcome that’s been predetermined by top-down leadership; and public hearings which happen before all the information on something is revealed.
How many people really know how to read a budget?
To make a truly informed comment during the Kingston Common Council’s public hearing on the Mayor’s proposed 2020 budget, prior to those more detailed discussions which will continue at the Council’s Finance Committee throughout the month of November, a member of the public would need to be skilled in reading a budget, knowledgeable about previous city budgets, and able to anticipate the future discussions, the Council members’ questions, and the forthcoming answers that will be happening throughout the Council’s public budget review process. In short, they’re asking the public to achieve an unattainable level of understanding for a layperson and a measure of potentially supernatural foresight.
In my experience following the civic issues of Kingston, I have noticed that the citizens of Kingston have a diversity of experience, knowledge base, and interests which, when they can participate in the public discourse in a meaningful way, result in informed and intelligent discussions which can sometimes be challenging but also offer outside perspectives and considerations that can broaden the understanding of an insular group, like elected officials at City Hall.
Perhaps the public hearing on Monday was meant to get a sense of the concerns and needs of the Council’s constituents. Something that could be achieved in Ward meetings, and calls for constituents to reach out directly to their alderperson.
The Council should hold a second public hearing on the budget after their in-depth public discussions, so that they can benefit from the input of a fully informed public. And if they prefer to hold only one public hearing on the budget, in the future that should happen after the Finance Committee’s discussions of the budget so the public can be as informed about the proposal as the Council itself is.
What is the true purpose of the public hearing on the proposed budget? And if the true purpose of the public hearing on the budget is to hear from an engaged, informed public, then how does the current process support that?
As it stands, the Council’s public hearing process on the budget is like so many other processes we see in Kingston government: backwards – requiring that the lay citizens of Kingston have an expertise that many of the City officials and staff themselves may not have. If the Council was seeking to simply check a box that they allowed the public an input period where they could feel heard, then that was achieved on Monday. But if they’re seeking to actually hear from the public, then the public needs to be at least as informed about the proposal as the Council is itself. And that will only come after the public discussions in the Finance Committee.
The Council should reconsider this (perhaps historically so) flawed process and update it to be truly transparent and inclusive of the informed civic engagement that the citizens of Kingston have proven time and again they will participate in.
The Kingston Common Council’s Finance Committee will meet again at City Hall, 420 Broadway, on November 4th at 6:30p to discuss the Kingston Fire Department and Building Safety Budget, on November 6th at 6:30p to discuss the Parks & Rec budget, on November 18th at 6:30p to discuss the City Hall budget, and on November 25th at 6:30p to wrap up budget discussions before the December 3rd vote.
Hillary Harvey is a journalist who hosts, The Source on Radio Kingston, a civic issues show focused on hyper local news and politics to inform civic engagement. An audio version of this editorial aired on November 1st and is available on the archive at RadioKingston.org (linked above).