Last night, as is done every year at this time, the mayor presented the city budget for the coming year. In his past years in office, Mayor William Hallenbeck has taken pride in delivering budgets that involve little or no increase in the mill rate for property taxes: 0 percent in 2012; less than 1 percent in 2013. This year, the mayor explained, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment (BEA), made up of the mayor, the city treasurer, and the Common Council president, was ready to deliver a budget with only a 1.5 percent increase until last week, when his colleagues on the BEA, Don Moore and Heather Campbell, "surprised and disappointed" him by proposing further increases.
The "further increases" proposed would create a capital reserve fund to prepare for major capital projects that, in Moore's words, are "on the horizon": a new bridge to the waterfront, a new ladder truck for the Fire Department, a new garbage truck for DPW. The plan is to allocate $200,000 for the fund in 2015 and $200,000 in subsequent years. In 2015, the $200,000 would be made up of $130,000 from the fund balance and $70,000 in increased revenue from property taxes. In an almost $10 million budget, this $70,000 seems to be the straw that would break the camel's back. According to the mayor, it would raise the tax increase for 2015 from 1.5 percent to 2.97 percent. This translates, according to the city treasurer, into an extra $40 in property tax for someone who owns a house assessed at $250,000.
The mayor argued that such a fund, which he repeatedly called a "capital gains fund," was unnecessary because the City has a fund balance of more than $2 million. He ended his presentation of the budget by vowing that he "will not and cannot support the increase" and asked the Common Council to reject the budget as proposed. Responding to the mayor's comments, Moore stressed that the fund balance was "a safety net, a cushion." "You don't see it," said Moore, "as something you plan to use." Campbell characterized the move to create a capital reserve fund as "trying to be responsible to the tax payers" and called it a way "to prepare in advance for coming expenses."
In the discussion of the proposed capital reserve fund, Alderman David Marston (First Ward) expressed the opinion that "the focus of the conversation is misplaced." He acknowledged that a capital reserve fund was a good idea but asked: "Should property tax payers be the ones to fund it? Does it make sense to further stress the property owner?" Later on in the discussion, Supervisor Bill Hughes (Fourth Ward), speaking from the audience, suggested that future capital projects should be funded by the sale of City-owned property, mentioning in particular the vacant lot at the corner of Fourth and State streets and the lot at the corner of Third and Columbia street, the site of the former CC Club, which was demolished three years ago.
There will be a public hearing on the 2015 budget at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 18, immediately before the Common Council meeting. The Council must vote on the budget by November 30.
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