On Monday, the Meriden City Council adopted a budget for 2019-20 that increases overall spending but uses $1.6 million of the unanticipated tax revenue from Eversource Energy to slightly lower property taxes. This will bring at least a quiet sigh of relief to many homeowners.
The only change the council made to the budget recommended by the Finance Committee was restoring money for the Police Department’s second deputy chief position, and that question was the major point of contention going into the council’s Monday meeting. Finance had voted to cut $115,000 from the police budget with the intent of eliminating the second deputy position. On Monday, the council restored $67,000 in a “compromise” after the police chief told them he didn’t intend to fill the position until November, and therefore didn’t need the entire amount.
Some of this maneuvering could probably have been avoided if all involved were more cognizant of the lines of authority here: Police Chief Jeffry Cossette reports to City Manager Tim Coon, not to the City Council.
The budget is still subject to line-item vetoes from Mayor Kevin Scarpati, and the council needs a two-thirds majority to overrule the mayor.
Also present at Monday’s meeting was the memory of last year, when a bigger cut to the police budget led Cossette to eliminate the department's 12-member Neighborhood Initiative Unit and three of the five School Resource Officers, prompting a storm of protest from residents and the Council of Neighborhoods.
But Cossette has maintained — correctly — that it is the council’s job to allocate the department’s total budget and his responsibility to decide how that money is spent.
This clearly rubs some councilors the wrong way, and a number of them question the need for two deputy chiefs (Republican Dan Brunet recently went so far as to call it “almost like a blackmail environment, which the chief does to the council.”) But the City Charter makes clear what are the responsibilities and powers of the various actors in this ongoing drama, and maybe there would be less drama if lines of authority were followed more closely.
By now it should be obvious to all that the NI unit and the school officers are a “third rail” of politics in Meriden (the other “third rail” being tax hikes). Successive administrations have been singing the praises of neighborhood policing and the SROs, year after year. Even the MPD continues to laud their value on its website.
And yet, the police chief retains the power to cut or eliminate those services, and he has exercised that power.
What we don’t expect to see this year is another budget referendum — not with the tax rate going down for a change. What we don’t want to see is a continuing tug-of-war between the council and the chief over who’s in charge of the police budget.
The council should expect the police chief to work these things out with his supervisor, the city manager.
If the council wants more power to write department budgets, maybe it’s time to change the charter.
Read more articles like this and help support local journalism by subscribing to the Record Journal.
Unlimited Digital Access just 99¢
Read more articles like this by subscribing to the Record Journal.
Unlimited Digital Access for just 99¢