FULTON, NY – Financially strapped city of Fulton taxpayers will see a zero percent increase in their current tax rate if the mayor’s $15.7 million proposed budget, published Tuesday (Dec. 9), is accepted by councilors next week.
“We were able to balance the budget without a tax increase,” Mayor Ronald Woodward explained in an interview on Wednesday with Oswego County Today, by holding down spending and trimming the city’s workforce.
The mayor’s proposed 2015 spending plan includes a static property tax rate of $19.66 per $1,000 of assessed value – the same as it was in 2014 – which means a homeowner with an $80,000 assessed property value would be responsible to pay $1,572.96 of city spending.
But the mayor said the stable tax rate did not come easy for the fiscally distressed community.
“Our costs are our people, retirement and health insurance,” Woodward said. “We came into this budget and the two things we had to pay for were the $630,000 in health insurance and retirement.”
To achieve a balanced budget, the mayor said he and city leaders decided not to replace “a bunch of people who are retiring” including some key full-time positions.
“Some people retired from positions but we’re bringing them back next year on a part time basis,” he said.
Woodward explained that once a person retires in the New York State retirement system, the state allows that person to work for the municipality as long as they don’t exceed $30,000 in annual earnings.
By using the maneuver the city will be able to take advantage of the training and expertise already invested in those individuals, but will be able to employ them at a lesser rate.
“When people retire from the city of Fulton, or just about any other city, they get their health insurance as part of their retirement benefits,” the mayor said. “When they’re retired, we don’t pay into the retirement system for them anymore.”
The mayor explained some reorganization of key jobs occurred within the administration when former Department of Public Works Commissioner Dan O’Brien was appointed to replace retired Chamberlain Jim Laboda. “We did not replace Dan’s position in the public works department,” Woodward said. “What we did was promote another employee in that department to supervisor, so now we have two supervisors in place.”
The mayor said the civil service director, deputy city clerk, a traffic employee and the dog warden are each retiring, but to save the city money each would be brought back as part-time employees next year.
Another staff reduction will see a full-time office position in the police department and another in the DPW reduced to part-time positions with both jobs reassigned to a blended full-time DPW office position, if the mayor’s budget passes council muster.
Woodward said there was one DPW heavy equipment operator who retired but in his proposed budget the city would not refill that job.
In another cost saving measure, the mayor noted in the last police contract the city got new starting rates for new officers. “We’re down about $50,000 in our salaries in the police department because the retirees we’re replacing are with new patrol officers,” he said. “Their rate is a lot less than the original rate was.”
“Plus, the officers leaving are 2nd and 3rd tier and the city’s contribution to the state for their pensions was about 27% of their salary. The new officers coming in at tier six are at 14%.”
This reduction has been a consistent decrease since 2010 as union contracts are renegotiated.
The mayor’s 2015 proposed $3,144,095 police budget is a decrease of $44,251 from last year.
With the current police, fire and CSEA union contracts due to expire Dec. 31, the mayor said he is meeting with the police union next week, is in the process of scheduling meetings with the fire and CSEA unions, and although the mayor was not able to discuss any details he did confirm that the contracts could affect the budget if the union members “get something.”
“There’s a lot of variables there, but I think that all three unions are aware of the fact that the city is suffering financially,” he said, and added that he did not expect the contracts would be settled before the end of this year.
The city held its own this year, seeing only a slight decline in property value compared to last year.
In 2013, the city lost nearly $10 million in value due to re-assessments recommended by the state.
The proposed 2015 budget shows a decrease of overall taxable property of $1.4 million, from $330,233,547 to a current value of $328,797,459.
“That’s factored into this budget, but what you have to understand is that some of that (assessed property value) is on the tax rolls as payment in lieu of taxes agreements,” Woodward noted. “Once (a PILOT agreement) happens, we still get tax money, but they don’t show up under the taxable part of the tax roll.”
In the same vein, the mayor said that the former Nestles property continues to put the city “in the hole every year.”
“Even though we’re pretty sure we’re not going to get our tax money out of that place they’re still on the tax rolls and we have to count them as revenue, as if we were going to get the taxes,” the city leader said. “Here’s the rub on that, we are in the process of tax foreclosure on that property.”
With the property owner nearly $1 million in arrears, the mayor expects the foreclosure process will conclude sometime very early next year and once that happens the property will come off the tax roll completely until the city can find a buyer.
The proposed budget includes a separate account for the sewer fund, including expenses directly related to waste water and treatment, and revenue from sewer fees.
The mayor adjusted his 2015 budget by $155,321 in city tax burden relief as a result of the city’s annexation of its waste water treatment plant earlier this year from the town of Granby.
The saved money was allocated to pay down the city’s debt for improvements to the city’s sewer infrastructure.
“The waste treatment plant upgrade, because we’re under an order from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for compliance, was $3.5 million, which the city borrowed,” he explained.
“We’re trying to hold the line, but it’s getting harder and harder every year,” the mayor said.
In 2013 the city appealed to the state’s newly formed Financial Restructuring Board as a fiscally distressed city.
During the ensuing six-month vetting process, the mayor said the restructuring committee recommended consolidation of city services, and municipalities, but the city was already doing as much as it could in the way of shared services.
“I don’t disagree with consolidation,” Woodward said. “The problem is that two municipalities have to agree to consolidate. One can’t say, ‘We’re going to consolidate.'”
With municipalities all struggling with the major uncontrollable expense of employee pension and health benefit costs, Woodward said he made the suggestion to the restructuring board to request that the state create a regional fire district as a way to relieve a major cost the city faces.
The proposed spending plan allots $2,913,451 to the fire protection account, a decrease of $104,417 from last year’s budget.
The city charter requires fire protection and the mayor said only the state can restructure to create a fire district.
“We can’t do that, it can only be done by an act of legislature,” he said. “That would have been a tremendous consolidation because what I suggested is taking the city of Fulton and the partners that we have in the mutual aid system outside the corporate limits and make them all one big district. That would have taken the fire department budget out of the city budget.”
He explained that the way a district works is that the public has to elect the commission and they are in charge of hiring, firing and spending money. “And when somebody wants an increase it has to go on the ballot and the public has to vote on it,” Woodward said.
In the state-approved Fulton Public Library restructuring voted in by taxpayers in May, instead of relying solely on the city property taxpayers, the entire community at large which benefits from the library’s services contributes to sustaining its existence.
Woodward envisions a similar community-wide fire agency that is no longer dependant exclusively on city taxpayer dollars.
“But the restructuring board stayed right away from that,” he said. “They didn’t want anything to do with it.”
Copies of the complete budget proposal are available in the city clerk’s office, or as a .pdf online here.
The public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 16, in the Common Council chamber. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. and members of the community are encouraged to attend.