Three people spoke at the public hearing before Fulton Common Councilors approved a budget for 2013 that raises taxes below the state property tax cap limit.
That’s not to say that the public hearing was short. The hearings on waiving the state tax cap and on the budget took 90 minutes, primarily because Mayor Ron Woodward engaged in lengthy discussion with each of the speakers at the hearing about the points they raised.
The $15.4 million budget raises taxes about 3%, or about $25 on a $50,000 house before any exemptions. It raises the city’s tax rate to $17.06 per thousand, one of the state’s highest tax rates and about one third of the overall city, county and school tax rate on city taxpayers of more than $50 per thousand, which has been the highest in the state.
The vote to enact the budget was unanimous, though Councilor Alan Emrich was absent.
Mayor Ron Woodward explained that the city cut the expenses it could control. No services were cut, but a few positions, primarily in the fire department, will be eliminated through retirements in 2013.
He said the expenses that the city could not control — health insurance costs, the mandatory contribution to state pension funds and other state and federal mandates — account for all of the budget’s $292,000 increase in spending over the previous year.
“We are truly pawns of the state and federal governments,” Woodward said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see this getting better.”
During the public hearing, former Council member Bob Weston praised the lawmakers for offering what he called a tight budget with a reasonable tax hike.
Resident Frank Castiglia, who attends and speaks at nearly every Council meeting, said the Mayor needs to do more to control overtime costs, which he said are only down 4% since 2009.
“Just say there’s no OT” for most city employees, he said, urging them to cut the overtime budget by 20%.
He also said the city could do without most of its cell phones. He said only the Mayor, Police Chief, Fire Chief and DPW head needed one, and they could use pay-as-you-go cellphones.
“That certainly should be looked at,” agreed Woodward.
Castiglia also said the police department doesn’t need high-powered cars in order to get to calls quickly within the small city. Woodward said he’s already talking to the police department about using more fuel-efficient 6-cylinder cars.
“Your spending is out of control,” said city resident and former candidate for Mayor Mark Aldasch as he urged the Council to eliminate the Fulton Police Department. He said city taxpayers already pay for police protection in their county taxes, and the State Police substation is right on the city’s southern border.
“If you don’t have the intestinal fortitude to do it, let the public decide,” Aldasch said, urging them to hold a public vote on keeping or cutting the police force.
Aldasch also said police and fire personnel should not get raises. The city and their unions agreed to contracts that provided no raises for two years and two percent increases in the third year.
“Stop padding their pensions,” he said. “They’re overpaid. I’ll say it. Maybe it’ll get me ticketed tomorrow.”
He also urged them to close one of the city’s two fire stations and said that high taxes have made it impossible for him to sell his house. “Maybe you’re asking too much for your home,” said Council President Jay Foster.
“I see the need for a strong police force,” said Council member Dan Knopp. “We cut (the budget) as close as we can.”
Before approving the budget, the Council approved waiving the state’s limit on tax levy increases. The budget’s tax increase is below the cap limit, Woodward explained, but the city’s revenues from at least one massive taxpayer are going to change soon and if they change by too much, the city could exceed the cap and incur penalties.
The city is trying to settle a tax case with the owners of the hydropower stations in the city, who will get a reduction in their tax assessment. The only question is how much.