Halfway through a lengthy budget meeting, Mike Zuhl, chief of staff for Mayor Palmer DePaulis, silently drew a big "V" and flashed it to reporters sitting in the back of the room.
V is for veto, the first DePaulis has threatened in his term of office.The mayor said he will take the 15 days allowed by law to consider overturning the decision of the majority of the City Council in appropriating $3.8 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds.
The mayor's veto threat came after the council's first stab at allocating funds in the 1988-89 fiscal year budget. The action is expected to be symbolic of the battles the executive and legislative branches will face in order to adopt a balanced city budget by June 9.
Already some members of the council have questioned scores of programs in DePaulis' proposed $80.3 million general fund budget. They've also questioned whether the mayor has the authority of a line-item budget veto.
Councilman Wayne Horrocks led the push in Tuesday's council meeting to slash nearly a dozen community and housing programs in order to purchase five acres of vacant land to expand the Police Athletic League. The league is in Horrocks' district, and the councilman touted it as one of his success stories as a neighborhood leader when he ran for office last fall.
Councilman Tom Godfrey expressed loud opposition to Horrocks' drive, saying other worthy programs were being "gutted" to serve Horrocks' interests.
DePaulis said purchasing vacant land that would require more money to make it usable isn't good public policy in such a tight budget year. "We can't afford it."
The mayor, in his proposed general fund budget, already has recommended appropriating $156,000 for operation of the Police Athletic League.
The mayor said the land has been vacant for years and the city doesn't need to hurry to buy it, as there appear to be no other interested buyers. He suggested a land swap or a sale of surplus city property to raise the funds, rather than spending scarce federal resources on land that is unusable in its current state.
But Horrocks said the programs at the league are preventive in nature and designed to help some 4,000 youth targeted as possible high crime risks. And he is worried about some other buyer beating the city to the land needed by the league. "I haven't seen the Lord making any other property and making it adjacent to other land."
Three of his colleagues, Florence Bittner, Alan Hardman and Willie Stoler, supported Horrocks' drive to make it the majority opinion. But the other three members of the council, Godfey, Sydney Fonnesbeck and Roselyn Kirk, say while the project has merit, they oppose funding it at the expense of others that would benefit a wide cross-section of city residents.
The council needs at least a 5-2 majority to override a mayoral veto.
Community Development Block Grant money is designed to fund programs that create a better urban environment and that benefit low- and moderate-income people, said Stephanie Loker, community development planner. The money is allocated among various programs, including housing, street and sidewalk improvements, parks and public buildings.
The city's $3.8 million appropriation in the 14th year of the federal grant program is a 2 percent cut from last year's funding pot.
The council held a public hearing last month - jokingly referred to as a "beg-a-thon" - where community leaders requested funding for their programs. The mayor makes a recommendation to the council on how the block grant funds should be spent after a volunteer community advisory board and city capital planning staff make proposals. The council has the final say on appropriating the funds.
Loker said rarely are more than one or two minor changes made to the mayor's recommendations.