Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The 2013 general budget is a work in progress, and the Common Council remains committed to a spending plan that requires no increase in the city tax rate, according to Mayor Michael Tucker.
At the Council’s required annual budget hearing Wednesday, copies of the general fund budget were distributed showing a year-over-year total spending increase of $77,500 or 0.33 percent, and a $1.25 or 8.5 percent tax rate increase.
Those numbers are significantly lower than they were in status quo/2012 rollover budget proposal shown to the media in early October — and they will go lower still, Tucker pledged.
Spending reductions, including deep cuts in allowable overtime for the police, fire and streets/parks departments, have been written in throughout over the past month, and when the Council adopts a final budget Nov. 21, the projected city tax rate should be no more than $14.73 per $1,000 of assessed value, which it is now.
How the final spending plan looks will depend in part on administration’s still-pending talks with the city’s five employee unions, according to Budget Director Richard Mullaney. The unions’ consent to unpublicized benefit reductions is sought to drive down total spending. In the absence of benefit reductions, the Council is prepared to cut jobs out of the budget. Administration still insists that raising the tax rate to maintain the status quo is not an option.
“We’re at a crossroads financially,” Mullaney said. “There is a difference between our constitutional ability to raise taxes and people’s ability to pay.”
The budget hearing elicited suggestions from a few residents regarding line items to cut. Former alderwoman Phyllis Green said scrapping $100,000-plus in city spending on the Labatt Canal Concert Series would be best for taxpayers — it’s a nicety, not a necessity, she observed — and getting city retirees paying a portion of their presently 100 percent city-funded health insurance premiums would also be good. Private-sector retirees who didn’t used to pay toward their premiums are now, so why not city retirees too? she suggested.
Mill Street resident Shirley Nicholas suggested scrapping a $43,000 marketing/
communication director post, which would be a new city job next year; ditching a housing inspector post whose last occupant she claims “harass(ed) the elderly instead of helping them”; and requiring City Clerk Richelle Pasceri to pick up budget director’s and labor negotiation duties, so that the city isn’t paying two other people to do those jobs.
Mullaney, the budget director, is the former city clerk/budget director who also had a hand in labor negotiations over time. In 2011, his last year on the job, he was paid about $86,000 in salary and stipends to wear all three hats.
This year, Pasceri’s salary as city clerk is $55,000; Mullaney is being paid a $12,000 annual fee to be budget director; and since August, Samuel Iraci has been paid $1,250 per month to represent administration in contract talks with the unions.
At this stage, Tucker said, he would not support cutting concert spending or funding for a city marketing/communications director. Both are “investments” in the city’s growing tourism economy, he said.
In addition, the funding for the marketing director’s post may end up being pre-existing, versus new, because the Council is contemplating ending the city’s $85,000-a-year marketing contract with Niagara Tourism & Convention Corporation. Up to half of the bed tax proceeds that it’s been paying to NTCC would be redirected to the new, city-based marketing office, Tucker said. The budget handed out Wednesday shows an NTCC spending line of $42,000, enough to cover the city’s contractual obligation to the county tourism agency while it waits out the required 120-day notification clause.
Of the housing inspector post that Mrs. Nicholas criticized, it’s already zeroed out in the 2013 budget and, according to Tucker, is already vacated. Provisional housing inspector Bob Turner did not pass the Civil Service test to keep the job, and the Council agreed to cut the now-unoccupied post for savings, he said.
Turner is back to being the city’s “community services aide,” the part-time employee who enforces city ordinances regarding lawn and sidewalk upkeep and refuse disposal, Tucker said. That post returns to the 2013 budget with a pay line of $10,000.
“For the money we get in court, that job probably pays for itself ... and it helps keep our city cleaner,” Tucker said.
Regarding negotiations with the employee unions, Tucker said Iraci is scheduling meetings with the units individually now. To date, there have been no one-on-one sessions between administration and the units representing police, firefighters, white- and blue-collar employees and department heads, he acknowledged; Iraci is aiming to get them under way by next week.
Tucker said the 2013 final budget will show “a few” job cuts by attrition, as at least 10 veteran city employees are expected to retire by the end of December and not all open jobs will be filled.
The savings from attrition cuts, while undetermined now, “takes some pressure off in negotiations,” he said. “It gives us some breathing room to work on agreements that ... aren’t so rushed.”