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November 13, 2013

City budget avoids police, fire cuts

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The Oneonta city budget proposal for 2014 includes two police and two firefighter positions that were on the chopping block.

The four public safety jobs would have been unfilled positions removed from the budget, not layoffs, and would have resulted in a savings of about $250,000, officials said.

Common Council members at last week’s meeting indicated support for maintaining those jobs, and City Manager Michael Long responded to that feedback in the budget laid on the council table Tuesday.

However, Long recommended that the city fill only one position in each department and re-evaluate the other vacant positions six months into next year and re-prioritize the capital plan’s impact on long-term use fund balance.

The council, mayor and city manager have been wrestling with a structural deficit in the city’s budget and projected expenses that outpace revenues.

The $15,314,600 general fund proposal for 2014 carries a $4,515,615 tax levy, which is up $69,799 or 1.57 percent, according to Long’s memorandum on the budget. A homeowner with a property assessed at $100,000 would see a city tax bill of $1,432.55, reflecting an increase of $24.04 from the previous year, he said.

Under the proposal, the city would use $538,000 of unassigned fund balance to close a shortfall.

The administration and council have been reviewing budget figures and needs closely since October, when the mayor announced that the 2014 budget proposal carried a $2 million deficit, based on revenues of about $14.5 million and spending estimated at $16.7 million.

Long, in his budget message, cautioned that maintaining the existing staffing plan means that the recommended gradual decrease in the use of the unassigned fund balance may result in need to terminate employees in later years.

About 70 percent of city costs are related to personnel expenses, Long said, and to reduce dependency on using the fund balance, vacant positions must be evaluated.

The $538,000 amount meets the council’s five-year plan to reduce city’s structural deficit.

Michael Lynch, Fourth Ward council member, said this year is the first time the council has been able to take a “very clear step toward eliminating the deficit,” which he described as “remarkable progress.”

Lynch said he was glad that the four public safety positions remained in the 2014 budget.

“That’s where they belong,” he said. Lynch said he will further study the proposal before next week’s meeting.

Long circulated the budget proposal to the mayor and Common Council, which didn’t meet Tuesday but will consider approving the plan during its regularly scheduled meeting next week.

A public hearing will be set for the budget proposal, possibly Nov. 25, Mayor Dick Miller said, and the council will vote on adopting the plan at its meeting Dec. 3.

Miller said the 2014 budget proposal appears to conform to guidelines set by the council and to reflect last week’s discussion, and he expects the plan will be approved as presented or with amendments.

Long said Meg Hungerford, city director of finance, has been instrumental in developing the plan, and Miller has worked to gain consensus from the council.

“I hope they adopt it without too many changes,” Long said Tuesday night.

“Our responsibility to the taxpayers is to try and maintain fiscal strength while offering the community the public services they have come to know and depend upon,” Long said in his six-page budget memorandum. Among other points he made were:

• The budget includes Tasers for all police department officers and video camera devices for supervising staff.

• The most significant recommendations to the proposed budget are changes in overall capital projects. Among improvements are replacing the roof of the main building of the Department of Public Works and computer cabling projects at City Hall and the Public Safety Building. A capital reserve fund will be established with $200,000 toward replacing the aerial ladder truck.