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More than zero

Bid to hold line on city taxes fails; council OKs $35 million ’11 budget

by Jesse J. Smith
December 16, 2010 02:32 PM | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In passing the City of Kingston’s 2011 budget this week, lawmakers managed to slash a proposed 6.5 percent residential tax rate increase proposed by Mayor James Sottile in half. However, the bulk of savings come not from cuts to personnel and services, but through raids of city reserve funds and increases in revenue projections that Mayor James Sottile likened to a “crapshoot.”

The $35 million spending plan approved by the council on Monday, Dec. 12 includes a 3.2 percent increase on residential property tax rates and a 4.5 percent hike in the tax rate for commercial properties. Sottile’s budget sought a 6.5 percent residential tax hike and a 7.9 increase in commercial property taxes.

A group of five lawmakers led by Finance Committee Chairman Charlie Landi and Alderman Hayes Clement had proposed a zero percent tax hike achieved through a series of major cuts, including laying off three police officers and eliminating the city’s Human Rights Office. But in the end, only one of the cuts — a proposal to eliminate three positions in the Department of Public Works and operate the city’s transfer station on a reduced schedule — made it out of the Finance Committee and into the final version of the budget. The layoffs, according to City comptroller John Tuey, would save the city $163,000 next year.

Late Wednesday, it was announced that the city and the county had signed a letter of intent for the county to take over the city’s fire dispatching. Kingston will pay the county $75,000 to provide emergency dispatch, according to a release from County Executive Mike Hein’s office, savin an estimated $80,000 for the city in 2011 with, the release states, “savings escalating going forward.” The allocation in the 2011 city budget was $209,000; how this change, which must be approved by the county legislature and Common Council, will affect the final budget figures was unclear at press time. The release, which pointed out that the Kingston Professional Firefighters’ Association was on board for the deal, also stated that one city dispatcher will be hired by the county for a position which was already slated to be filled in the county Office of Emergency Communications/Emergency Management.

Other adjustments to Sottile’s proposed budget included tapping $127,000 from the city’s reserve funds and increasing revenue projections for sales taxes, fees, interest and penalties for delinquent taxes and estimated revenue from the city’s recreation programs. Sottile, who signed the budget, said that the increased revenue estimates were arrived at in consultation with Tuey and were “responsible,” but he warned there was no guarantee that the actual revenue would meet the projections.

“The council spent a lot of time talking about more severe, deeper cuts and that didn’t happen,” said Sottile. “But give them credit, they took a 6.5 percent tax increase and cut it in half. But I have to say some of those moves are crapshoots.”

All but DPW spared layoffs

At a Dec. 9 meeting of the Finance Committee, members engaged in heated debate about the proposal to lay off three police officers. The issue involves a contract between the city and the Kingston City School District to provide three KPD officers to patrol the high school. The contract ends in June and the Mayor James Sottile has said that it will not be renewed unless the district agrees to pay the officers’ full salaries (currently the city picks up half the cost for the school resource officers). Police Chief Gerald Keller said that returning the three school resource officers to the department’s patrol force would not guarantee lower overtime costs or increased presence on the streets. But, Keller argued, a beefed-up patrol force would have more flexibility. Landi said that he hoped the defunding of the cops’ positions would spur the school district to assume full responsibility for the officers’ salaries. That prompted an angry response from Finance Committee member Shirley Whitlock (D-Ward 4).

“When are we going to stop playing Russian roulette with people’s lives and with their jobs?” said Whitlock. “We talk about wanting to keep our streets clean and keep things safe and the first thing on the list [of proposed cuts] is let’s cut some police officers.”

The committee also failed to win a majority vote on proposals to lay off a recreation department maintenance worker and transfer five more to DPW, eliminate the city’s human rights office and make the position of deputy registrar a part time job.

The vote to reduce transfer station hours and cut three positions from DPW passed committee in a 3-2 vote with Whitlock and Jen Fuentes (WFP-Ward 5) dissenting. The approval came despite an impassioned plea by DPW Superintendent Mike Schupp who argued that the department was just beginning to recover from the loss of 14 positions under the 2010 budget.

“If you are going to take three people out of that facility you might as well close it,” said Schupp who argued that with a reduced staff it would be impossible to run the station, even on a reduced schedule. “We have all we can do to get people on the back of a [garbage truck]. Give us a break.”

At the full council meeting on Dec. 12, Fuentes introduced a resolution to restore the DPW positions. The amendment failed by a vote of 6-2 with one absence, Alderman Tom Hoffay (D-Ward 2), who is recovering from heart surgery.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to add to the ranks of Kingston’s working poor in this economic climate,” said Fuentes who, along with Whitlock, cast the sole “yes” votes to restore the jobs.

After the council voted 6-2 to approve the final spending plan (Fuentes and Sixth Ward Alderman Ron Polacco cast the dissenting votes) Clement said that he was disappointed that the council had failed to achieve tax stasis, but defended the budget process.

“I’m disappointed, but we made progress in some meaningful ways,” said Clement. “Unless we do this stuff now, we’re going to lock ourselves into a dynamic for the next decade where every year we’re asking, ‘Where are we going to cut?’”
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