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October 31, 2013

Common Council weighs cuts to fire, police

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — ONEONTA — Two police department and two firefighter openings would be cut from the 2014 city budget under a proposal discussed at City Hall on Wednesday night.

Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller said eliminating the four positions would save the city about $250,000 in the 2014 budget.

City Manager Michael Long said personnel expenses account for 70 percent of the city’s budget, and the proposed cuts would result in savings extended in years ahead.

Several Common Council members raised questions about the staffing during the meeting, among other concerns about the spending proposal, including funding for recreation programs, streets, park improvements and other projects.

Council members, the city manager, finance director and mayor reviewed the spending plan during a meeting of the city’s Finance Committee at City Hall. The discussion will continue Tuesday night at the council’s regular meeting, when city officials said the police and fire chiefs would be asked to attend to answer questions.

Eliminating the positions would benefit the city’s fiscal health in the long run, Long said, but some council members wanted to hear directly from the chiefs of those departments about needs and potential impacts of the cuts.

Long presented a revised $15 million budget that has a $265,703 deficit, below a previously targeted deficit, which would be covered by an unappropriated fund balance.

The proposed tax levy is up 1.66 percent, which is the state mandated cap based on inflation, Long said. Water and sewer rates will be increasing about 10 percent to balance capital expense needs for improvements. Rates didn’t increase this year, he said, and would remain in line with benchmark communities.

A previous plan carried a $2 million budget revenue gap, and Long and Miller have been discussing with council members possible ways to cut spending. A multi-year plan developed earlier carried a $538,000 deficit for 2014.

Fire Chief Patrick Pidgeon, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said the department’s revised part-time program has “flourished.” But he shrugged his shoulders when a council member asked how the proposed cuts would affect morale in the department.

Both the fire and police departments have been the focus of task force efforts to determine personnel levels and review other issues. The fire department has seven firefighters at or approaching retirement eligibility within the next year, city officials said, and the police department has a young staff that has seen turnover with departures for career reasons.

Michael Lynch, council member for the Fourth Ward, said he was concerned about taking positions out of the budget, plus the idea of adding them if a need develops in the police department. It isn’t realistic to expect a department head to seek candidates and make a hiring request for an unfunded position, he said.

Larry Malone, Second Ward council member and chairman of the Finance Committee, echoed Lynch’s concerns because a “sudden exodus” of one to three police officers “could put us in a pickle because you don’t just go out and rent a cop.”