OSWEGO, NY – More than 200 Port City residents packed the Oswego Middle School gym Thursday night to let city officials know what they think of the proposed 2014 budget.
By far and away, the vast majority of opinion was anti-budget; especially opposed to a huge tax hike.
On Wednesday night, the Common Council made significant cuts in the mayor’s budget proposal. Still, the budget would cut the number of city employees.
They reduced the proposed property tax rate from nearly 82 percent to about 43 percent.
As it stands now, the DPW would be the hardest hit, losing 15 of its 78 positions.
“I want to take this opportunity to apologize to each one of my employees,” DPW Commissioner said, adding that he failed them during the budget process. “They are dedicated civil servants who provide some of the most vital services to the city. They are professionals who take their responsibility seriously and they do their best to maintain a safe, clean, attractive city for our residents and visitors alike.”
“It’s extremely unfair and a genuine disservice to the city of Oswego to place these layoffs at their doorstep at this time,” he continued.
He urged the council to find alternatives to balance the budget that doesn’t result in layoffs.
Jody Delbrocco, the business agent for the SEIU-Local 200 union, pointed out that the people he represents at the DPW haven’t had a pay raise in five years.
“I want everybody to know that in 2012 we negotiated the retirement cost of our employees down by 600 percent. We’ve made our sacrifice; we’ve been doing it since 2008,” he said. “It is time to look somewhere else. The 112 that I do represent, have made their sacrifices and you’re asking us to do it again. You are going to cripple the Department of Public Works to the point where it can no longer function. We are not going to be able to plow the snow with 15 less people in those trucks.”
Pat Kelly, city housing inspector, is also slated to lose her job as of Jan. 1, 2014.
“We’re talking about quality of life here, we’re talking about quality of life for the city of Oswego,” she said. “And yet, they’re doing away with code enforcement. I’ve got four cases pending. I’ve got paperwork all over my desk and I was told at 3 O’clock yesterday afternoon that my job was discontinued.”
If the city is in such dire financial straights, why did it buy the marina, several people asked.
“The city’s three sources of revenues are first and foremost property taxes. Second are sales taxes and third is the marina, it nets over $100,000 a year,” former First Ward Councilor Connie Cosemento told the crowd. “So, the marina is not just a fluke purchase. If we can’t operate it and continue to net money, then there has to be some other decisions.”
Other speakers took issue with the city’s ambulance service, the CitySourced program (an automated method of reporting issues to city officials), all the taxes and other things.
“We need to look at all the taxes, city, county and the enormous school tax. Our school tax is just that, enormous. To me it is the elephant in the room,” Tony Pauldine said. “Over 50 percent of our properties are tax exempt. I’d like you to find a way to get some back on the tax roll.”
He said the hospital is tearing down a lot of homes to make room for parking. That is costing the city millions in lost tax revenues, he added.
One small business owner said that she has started to make a little bit of profit and now “the city sticks its hand out and takes it.”
Deb Engelke said she is going to have to pay an extra $700 at her store as well as $700 more for her home.
“Since my husband retired and I don’t make very much money, I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to pay this,” she said.
“We live in this community, too. This is our city,” Mayor Tom Gillen said.
“Instead of laying people off and cutting certain positions, could city employees across the board take the same cut to make up for that so no one would have to lose their jobs?” Margo Orton asked. “I’m talking about a percentage that every city employee would take, a cut in their salary.”
That would have to be negotiated with the unions, the mayor said.
Former county legislator Lee B. Walker asked whether the council ever considered reducing its number?
Council President Ron Kaplewicz said there has been discussion about going down from seven councilors to four and one ‘at large.’
“That is an excellent point,” Walker said. “It’d save some money. The last thing I want to see is one person in this room that I see every day out on the street lose their job. If we went to five aldermen, it would reduce that pay.”
He and others also took the council to task for approving a raise for the council president and vice president.
“You took a pay raise. Here we are looking at laying off people and you guys would not take that pay raise away from the president and vice president. I’ve been told right to my face, ‘we work hard.’ Well these DPW workers work hard, too. You’ve got to give something back.”
“We’re all suffering from the oppression of the state and federal government,” Sue Matthews pointed out. “Have they said what kind of relief they’re talking about (for the $87 million consent decree)? That’s a big chunk of our budget.”
“We are ahead of schedule in our projects. We sat down with the DEC, EPA; we have done everything they’ve asked us to do and then some,” the mayor replied. “We’ve gotten word that they will consider reevaluating the consent decree based on our performance and cooperation.”
The council has spent 100s of hours going over the budget plan and will continue to do that right up to the last minute, Councilor Mike Myers said.
He thanked Mayor Gillen for letting him “sit inside the budget” so that he knows exactly what’s going on.
Councilor Shawn Walker said he was “devastated” when he first saw the budget.
“I’d never seen such an increase in my life. I was dumbfounded. We went through it with a fine-tooth comb to cut it. My heart goes out to the senior citizens that can’t make ends meet now. We’re going through it every single day looking for things that we can cut – and it’s down to people now.”
The budget process was some of the hardest decisions they ever had to make, Council Dan Donovan said.
“We take no joy in doing this. But there are some stark realities, the consent decree, the high dam, the tracking account and revenues are down to name a few,” he said. “Some hard decisions had to be made. It’s not what we want to do; it’s what we had to do. Instead of settling for an 81 percent increase, deep cuts had to be made. Every department felt this reality. Take into account it hasn’t been voted on yet – it’s not over.”
“We can’t get to zero (tax increase), there’s no way,” Councilor Eric VanBuren said. “We have to deal with things. I don’t want to be part of an administration that kicks the can down the road; we’re going to address issues that come up.”
“We have meetings set up with the hospital trying to stop that,” Councilor Mike Todd said, referring to Pauldine’s comments.
Some college kids have “destroyed” two wards’ worth of revenue, Todd said.
“You either raise taxes now or you lay people off,” he said. “Nobody wants to lay people off. But that’s where we’re at. They’re the only two options we have at this time.”
Councilor Fran Enwright thanked everyone for coming out “and showing your support and your frustrations.”
“So, what do we do about it? That is the question. We looked at places to cut … it gets down to people. It’s not an easy choice we have to make. I have a brother in the DPW, I don’t know if he’s even talking to me right now,” he said. “This is where we are right now. We cut it about in half.
“This isn’t over,” the mayor said prior to the start of the meeting. “The public hearing will be held on Monday and then the council will vote on the budget. But if they wish, they can still work on it for another week. We have until the end of the month to approve the 2014 budget.”