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Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission Releases Financial Analysis Of New Plan

Saratoga Springs voters will decide this Election Day if they want to adopt a new city charter. The commission tasked with designing the new governing document has released a financial review of the plan.

The proposed charter would transition Saratoga Springs from its unique commission-style form of government to a more common council-manager form.

Currently, the five members of the city council also serve as part-time department heads, including the mayor.

Under the system being proposed, there would be a seven-member city council, a mayor, and an appointed city manager to oversee day-to-day operations within the city.

Jeff Altamari, a member of the Charter Review Commission, said the current system does not allow for efficiencies in how city departments are run.

“The current charter has everybody locked into this structure,” said Altamari. “I mean, if you work for a company where things start to get bad or you saw you could streamline things to improve efficiency, you do it. But this charter locks us into this kind of antediluvian structure.”

This week the Charter Review Commission released a financial review of the plan that adds up to about $391,000 in savings over the current charter.

That takes into account eliminating four department heads with a salary at $14,500 a year plus benefits, removing the five existing full-time deputy commissioners, boosting the mayor’s pay to $40,000, and hiring a city manager with an estimated salary of $125,000 and benefits.

The estimate in the analysis does not factor in future actions by the new system of government nor does it factor in transition costs.

The group called SUCCESS, which is opposed to charter change, disagrees with the Charter Review Commission’s analysis.

Giving one example, SUCCESS supporter Richard Sellers says transition costs could be very expensive.

“It’s very hard to estimate that but it could easily approach a million dollars over two to four years by the time they pay for incremental help, overtime, buying out contracts, recruiting a city manager and other people: admittedly a hard number to come up with,” said Sellers.

There have been multiple ballot measures over the years to change the Spa City’s system of government, which dates back more than a century. The conventional argument against charter reform is that the city is already doing strong economically, and that’s due to the character and dedication of the people in city government.

Critics of the current charter argue that part-time pay and full-time responsibilities make it impossible for many residents to run for city office. They say a professional city manager would bring experience to city hall under the new system.

But Sellers is uncomfortable with an outside hire taking charge at city hall.

“The biggest negative to me to the approach is the combination of the beauracratic city manger who will not have any experience in Saratoga Springs based upon the criteria they’ve put down,” said Sellers. “So it will be a brand new person trying to learn our unique and wonderful city.”

Altamari, who touts his experience managing multi-million dollar companies, says the city, like companies, must look for ways to become more efficient.

“The SUCCESS argument weights too heavily on the fact of what we have: what we have is so sacred, what we have is what we need to forward with. That’s just ridiculous. People have got to change. Structures can be run leanly and they are. We’re not making this stuff up – it exists. So when you go to these city council-manager forms of government, you see the   kind of structure that I’m describing.”

Opinions over charter change are divided among the five-member city council as well as candidates on this year’s ballot.

Democratic mayoral candidate Meg Kelly, who currently serves as deputy mayor under outgoing Mayor Joanne Yepsen, supports charter change.

Republican Mark Baker, who previously helmed the Saratoga Springs City Center for 34 years, wants to see the current system remain.

If approved by voters on Election Day, the council-manager-style government would take effect in 2020.

The Charter Review Commission said it will release a more detailed financial analysis of the proposed charter in the near future.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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