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November 19, 2012

Oneonta council weighs budget options for 2013

By Denise Richardson
The Daily Star

---- — ONEONTA — Two vacancies in the Oneonta Police Department are under a microscope as the mayor and Common Council review the proposed 2013 budget.

The proposal, which maintains a tax levy increase within the state-mandated 2 percent limit, will be put before the council during its meeting in Council Chambers in City Hall at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller said Sunday.

A budget hearing is scheduled for Nov. 27, and the council must approve the budget as presented or amended Dec. 4, he said.

Miller said council members have been more involved than in recent years in developing next year’s spending plan.

The general fund budget for 2013 is presented with a deficit of $457,000, which reduces a previous estimate based on cuts recommended by the mayor.

The recommended cuts include two vacant positions in the police department and two vacant operator positions in the public works department. Miller said there are no layoffs in the proposed budget.

At the most recent council meeting, several council members objected to removing police officer lines from the budget based on concerns for public safety.

Miller said in a memorandum to the council last week that he is ``firmly committed to a policy of removing current vacancies in all departments from the budget’’ to make any hiring decision a new position.

“I see no other way of avoiding or minimizing layoffs in the future, unless we take full advantage of this strategy,’’ Miller said.

As part of the process of reviewing the budget and public safety issues within the city, Miller said, a task force to study staffing and services of police will be formed. Miller said he awaits names of five union police members to schedule the first meeting.

Miller said expenses for the police department account for 32 percent of the budget.

“It’s hard to constrain a budget without constraining the police department,’’ Miller said.

The city has made progress in the last year with hiring a new chief, adjusting staffing, starting a process to seek accreditation and investing in technology, Miller said. Maintaining momentum toward improving services and enhancing resources in the most fiscally sound means is key, he said, and putting all the issues on the table before a task force can benefit the city and the police department.

“You never know how much police is enough,’’ Miller said. A challenge is to provide safety for the community in a most-effective budget, he said.

Last year, the city formed a Fire Department Task Force with successful results, Miller said.

Public works expenses account for 19 percent of the city’s budget, the memo said. Overall, personnel wages and benefits amount to 65 percent of Oneonta’s budget, Miller said.

The proposal doesn’t include a reduction in salaries for Common Council members as previously recommended, Miller said, but his salary will be reduced by $7,000 because the city recently hired a manager.

Last December, the council adopted a $19.9 million budget for 2012. The plan carried an increase of 11 percent increase in spending and was within the property tax cap imposed by state law.