Schenectady County

Schenectady budget OK’d, tinkering goes on

Taxes and fees are going up, but Schenectady residents still might lose some of their fire protectio

Taxes and fees are going up, but Schenectady residents still might lose some of their fire protection.

The City Council adopted the 2011 budget Monday with a 4.9 percent tax increase, a 2 percent hike in water and sewer fees for commercial users, and a $21 per unit increase in the garbage fee.

For the typical homeowner with a house assessed at $100,000, the tax bill before fees will go up $62, to $1,319. The tax rate was set at $13.19 per $1,000 of assessed property.

Council members had to adopt a budget by Monday, but they’re hoping to change the budget before the tax bills are printed on Dec. 15. Bids to buy the city’s delinquent tax liens will be opened Wednesday and city officials could get a higher price than expected.

They may also convince nonprofits to make a donation to the city to pay for firefighters. Mayor Brian U. Stratton is asking every nonprofit for help.

“This is not a finished product yet,” Stratton said of the budget just before the council voted on it. “Our job is not done.”

As it currently stands, the spending plan lays off 14 firefighters. But the union has offered “options” — which union President David Orr declined to call “concessions” — that would reduce the cost of paying for firefighters’ salaries and benefits.

“I think absolutely we should be able to come to an agreement before Dec. 15,” Orr said.

The council would use the savings to add back firefighting positions.

“I’m really committed to trying to find ways to restore all the firefighter positions,” Councilwoman Margaret King said.

The mayor’s proposed budget laid off 22 firefighters, including three still in training. That amount of a reduction would have increased response time from 4 minutes to 8 to 12 minutes for fires and medical emergencies because one firehouse would have closed.

Councilman Thomas Della Sala said adding back eight firefighters was the minimum needed to keep all four fire stations open.

But Fire Chief Robert Farstad said 14 layoffs might still force him to close a station.

“It’s a 22 to 25 percent reduction in my daily staffing,” he said. “I’m thankful we have eight back. It will still be a significant change in service. It’s too soon to say that a fire station will or will not close.”

He will have to take two firetrucks off the road, he added. One rig might come from the upper State Street station, which has two rigs. The smaller stations have one each; the main station on Veeder Street has three.

With fewer trucks, Farstad said, the stations are more likely to run out of vehicles and call for another city station to help. That would drive up response times to the 8- to 12-minute range on those occasions, Farstad said.

“Eight people is nice, but it really didn’t solve the problem,” he said.

The adopted budget also adds back many of the parks and SNAP crews, which were slated to be laid off. Their salaries will be offset by a $21 per unit increase to the garbage fee. Only seniors would not see an increase.

One position in the assessment department was put back in the budget after Assessor Patrick Mastro told the council that his department had been cut too thin. Two of his five staffers’ jobs had been eliminated.

The final budget eliminates 89 jobs, but most were already vacant or will be vacated by retirements. Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam said about 32 people will still be laid off, including the 14 firefighters.

Funding for two pools was also restored after Ellis Hospital offered $40,000 to open them. The money will open Quackenbush and the Front Street pool. Hillhurst is not funded in the budget.

The $77 million budget passed by a vote of 5-2. Council members Carl Erikson and Denise Brucker voted against it.

Brucker said she couldn’t support a budget that eliminates 14 firefighters and 11 vacant police officer positions.

“I’m very concerned by the cuts, not only to the Fire Department but also the Police Department,” she said. “I don’t feel the pain has been spread out enough … These cuts not only affect the lives of the people who are working them, but they certainly affect the lives of everyone in the community.”

Erikson said he wanted more cuts. He had proposed consolidating purchasing, among other items, but none of those ideas were added to the budget.

He also said the city could have laid off more managers.

“Look, I think the budget that we ended up with was better than we started with,” he said. “I felt there was a few more things we could have done, if we had worked harder.”

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