by Jason Taylor
(WXIR-Rochester) Rochester City Council held its first round of public hearings on Mayor Lovely Warren’s proposed 2020-2021 budget this week. The Council heard from several city departments amidst a challenging budget year that threatens to reduce city services.
Councilmembers raised specific concerns about proposed changes to the Department of Recreation and Youth Services (DRYS) Wednesday.
That department is facing a 2% budget cut for the coming year, as well as extensive ongoing reorganization that includes the elimination of all ten Recreation Center directors. The directors would be replaced by four Community Center Managers or CCM’s who would oversee several R-Centers at once.
City Council President Loretta Scott expressed concern at the fact that the new configuration "has no onsite supervision" at facilities she says "can be very challenging, and challenging is a generous word.”
The proposed budget would create some new positions in DRYS, but at lower pay levels. President Scott worried that this could lead to the effective demotion of long-serving R-Center employees.
“There are employees who are within arms reach of retirement, whose jobs have been downgraded salary-wise," Scott said. "Your retirement is based on your highest [salary in your] last three years. That could have significant and permanent impacts on their livelihood.”
In his comments Wednesday, City Councilmember Mitch Gruber asked whether staff cuts at R-Centers could be avoided right now. “If anything I think there should be a staff increase in terms of the number of the people out there and not a decrease,” Gruber said.
“The work that you guys do is too vital," Gruber said to DRYS staff at Wednesday's budget hearing, "especially right now when we don’t know what the shape of schools are going to be next year, and we do know that the R-centers are going to be there for people.”
Mayor Warren said she understood the council members’ apprehension at the proposed cuts. However, Warren said the DRYS reorganization would enable them to create more positions that would be in one-on-one or direct contact with youth.
Warren added that the City has been investing more in recreation and youth services over the past several years. Since Warren took office in 2014, the DRYS budget has grown by about 10%. Mayor Warren was also quick to note that the $119 million the city contributes to the Rochester City School District budget should be considered together with DRYS funding.
“The record is very very clear about where our focus is because our funding for children is on par with our funding for our public safety. We need to make sure that record is reflected,” Mayor Warren said.
The Department of Youth and Recreation Services is not the only department facing cuts in the coming fiscal year. Nearly every department will see reductions.
This year's budget hearings come amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which has become an economic crisis in addition to a health crisis. The city is anticipating a 15% decrease in sales tax revenue on top of a 20% decrease in state aid.
Mayor Warren’s proposed budget attempts to fill the anticipated gap not only by making cuts to the majority of city department budgets. It also proposes tapping into city savings and increasing the property tax levy. The typical city homeowner could expect to pay $134 more in property taxes next year.
Despite the various cuts, the City plans to continue work on several new projects, including ROC the Riverway, the building of a new police station and neighborhood service center, and the unveiling of La Marketa this Fall.
City Council is hosting several online public hearings on both the City and RCSD budgets this month. Council has the power to propose changes to those spending plans. They are scheduled to vote on the budgets June 16th.
Jason Taylor is a volunteer reporter for WXIR covering local news.