OSWEGO, NY – A request to set a public hearing regarding proposed Local Law No. 2 of 2014 turned into nearly an hour-long discussion of the city’s budget process and transparency in government at Monday night’s the Planning and Development Committee meeting.
Gay Williams, city attorney, requested authorization to schedule a public hearing for July 28 for 7:10 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall.
The Local Law would amend a section of the code of the city of Oswego to read: Should the budget have a tax rate increase of 5 percent or more than the previous year’s tax rate, then the budget shall go to a public referendum in that year’s November election, by operation of law. In the event the budget cannot be presented at the general election, then there shall be held a special election at the earliest date.
Local attorney Kevin Caraccioli, who has pushed the city to approve the change, spoke briefly prior to the committee’s vote.
“It is my understanding that the committee will take the first steps in moving the 5 percent tax rate cap petition to the ballot for consideration by the residents of Oswego in November. I applaud you if that is truly your intention,” he told the councilors. “Forgive me for my skepticism. After the comments I heard a week ago, largely in opposition to this measure, I was pleasantly surprised to hear this news.”
His skepticism turned critical when he read that a few councilors have taken to calling this effort “The Caraccioli Cap.”
“Again, based upon the opposition to this petition by those currently running this city, I began to wonder whether this was an attempt to set me up; to distance yourselves from this effort that has captured the attention of so many in our community. If I were cynical, I can hear many of you say, ‘Well don’t blame us, it is the Caraccioli Cap.’ Or, ‘Because of the Caraccioli Cap we had to do this …,’” he added.
Government, he said, should not be about winners and losers, that is what elections are for.
The 5 percent tax cap won’t work if there is not a corresponding commitment from each of the councilors to govern responsibly, he continued.
“The good new is there are many citizens will to support that type of government,” he said. “What cannot be supported anymore is the same ‘we have never done it that way before’ attitude. We must change, or we will surely fail. To paraphrase President Abraham Lincoln and the Bible, a city divided against itself cannot stand.”
Election Commissioner Dick Atkins explained to the councilor what is required of them to get the matter on the November ballot.
They have to pass the local law, he said. It cannot be just an advisory local law, he added.
It must be worded properly, that is an important part of election law.
And they have 36 days prior to the election, which is Sept. 29, to get that to the Board of Elections.
“Without the clerk sending me a certified copy, which is properly worded on that date, you will not have it on the ballot as a proposition,” he said. “If it is passed, you are then going to be obligated again each year, dependant upon whether you exceed a 5 percent tax increase to follow that same 36-day criteria to be able to have the people vote on it. Which means your budgeting time is going to be backed into July.”
Copies of the proposal are available at the clerk’s office, Councilor Eric VanBuren said.
“Why wouldn’t the council want to put a cap on the tax rate?” an audience member asked. “A 5 percent tax cap seems reasonable.”
Councilor Shawn Walker pointed out there are a lot of things the city doesn’t have control over in its budget, such as state mandates. Sometimes the tax rate needs to be more than 5 percent, he explained.
Some times, it comes down to you have to make very tough decisions, Council President Ron Kaplewicz added.
The fire, police and DPW consume about 90 percent of the budget, he said, adding, “It doesn’t give you much room to wiggle in.”
“We made some very difficult choices and we cut millions out of the budget last year, things that people wanted and needed,” he said. “What you are essentially doing with this resolution is you’re taking away the ability for your mayor and your councilors to govern. You make our decisions very easy – it’s 5 percent and we’ve got to cut. We know that. But it means cutting at the expense of this city and its progress, its people and its properties and its children, then that’s what will happen.”
If it’s such a good idea, why doesn’t every city in the state put a self-imposed 5 percent tax cap on? he asked rhetorically.
County Legislator Shane Broadwell urged the council to communicate more with the residents.
“Let them know what you’re doing. Here’s what we’re doing, what we ran into, here are the other alternative solutions,” he suggested. “I think that might help people understand better what’s happening.”
One audience member said the city should give out raises until it gets its financial house in order.
“I’m on a fixed income. I didn’t get no raise and my taxes went up 43 percent,” he said.
“You have to have managers that manage. You have to have information, you have to ask questions, you’ve got to hold people’s feet to the fire to make sure they’re doing things efficiently,” another said. “It’s not being done efficiently, from the bottom up.”
“We have to put taxes ahead of services. You can offer all the services, but if it’s unaffordable to live here somebody’s not going to move here or continue to live here,” Councilor Bill Barlow said. “I think we’re being proactive. I think we can be more proactive.
“I think people are afraid,” one woman told the committee. “After the big tax increase last year, I think people are literally afraid and wonder if they’re going to be able to live in their homes next year.”
The councilors pointed out they examining each department with an eye toward making them run more efficiently. And, they have made several cuts in the DPW and fire department, for example.
“We can grow this city. We have the resources,” Mayor Tom Gillen said.
As positives, he pointed to expansions at the Port of Oswego Authority and Novelis, the riverfront and lakefront, history and more.
The city’s new website will be online soon to provide more information to residents, he added.