Fulton residents will see the first tax increase in four years and only the second in the last eight years as the result of the budget adopted Tuesday night by the Common Council.
The $15.1 million budget spends $160,000 less than the 2011 budget but because the city lost almost $8 million in taxable property this year, taxes on the remaining properties will be slightly higher.
The budget increases the tax levy 1.17%.
It reduces the city’s contribution to the public library by $80,000 and zeroes out this year’s $145,000 payment for priority service to Menter Ambulance of Fulton. Five positions left vacant by retirements or departures will not be filled. The city will not repair sidewalks this summer and will not buy new equipment, except to replace one or two very old ladder fire trucks with used trucks.
“None of it makes me happy,” said Mayor Ron Woodward in introducing the budget. “I’ve had bad budgets, but nothing like this.”
A handful of residents spoke at the budget’s public hearing.
Resident Mark Aldasch, a former candidate for Mayor, told Councilors, “I think you can do better with this budget. I think you need to challenge the public safety side.”
He pointed out that the city of Oneida, which is about the same size as Fulton, has police and fire departments which are half the size of Fulton’s.
“This is the time to be cutting government,” he said.
“I think you took the easy way out with the cuts you made,” said resident Frank Castiglia. “You’ve got some city employees making $100,000 and you’re going to force the library to possibly shut down?”
Woodward said he has the figures to prove that letting an employee earn a lot of overtime is cheaper than hiring another employee and paying that employee’s benefits. “We’re ahead $30,000. Didn’t look smart to you, but it was,” he said.
Lisa Emrich asked why the city only asked for a 5% increase in worker contributions to their health insurance. Woodward explained that an increase higher than 5% would have ended the city’s favorable grandfathered status for its contracts and would have imposed more costs on the city.
“I don’t think the city has a spending problem,” said former Council member David Guyer, who owns a business in the city and said the real problem is the shrinking tax base.
The city lost $8 million in taxable property from a judge’s forced reassessment of the hydropower plants in the city, the purchase of the former P&C supermarket by Cayuga Community College, and the closing of Birds-Eye.
Another former Council member, Bob Weston, commended the group for “the great job they did on the budget.”
He and resident Jo Farrell each said the city needed to find a way to get the city’s large non-profits to pay something for the services they receive. Woodward said Cayuga Community College’s Foundation head wants to talk about that in January, but has said that Oswego County Opportunities rejected any discussion of changing its use of city police to transport some of its clients.
Lawmakers also voted unanimously (minus departing Council member Kim Roy, who has attended very few meetings in the past year) to waive the state’s 2% cap on the tax levy.
Woodward explained that the group that represents local governments recommended the waiver because the cap is new, enforcement by the state is uncertain, and mistakes made by the city could bring expensive penalties.
The city’s tax levy increase is about a third of what would have been allowed under the cap.
While Aldasch said that waiving the cap showed him that the Council didn’t have confidence in its budget, resident Dennis Merlino said it would be irresponsible not to waive it.