SCHENECTADY — The City Council adopted its 2020 budget on Monday.
The $112 million spending plan carries a 1.54-percent tax cut, boosts funding for parks maintenance and city-owned distressed properties and includes the full $2 million Mayor Gary McCarthy requested for his Smart Cities initiative.
The 16-percent salary increase McCarthy proposed for himself has been reduced to 4 percent.
The budget passed 6-1, with Councilman Vince Riggi providing the lone dissenting vote, citing concerns over Smart Cities and the need for a more muscular city workforce.
City Council, displaying few traces of the rancor displayed at last Friday’s budget session, agreed it was a compromise deal.
“I think it came out of a process where we knew there were some things that needed to be changed,” said Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas.
The adopted budget results in a cumulative tax cut of 8 percent over the past five years.
“I believe we’re the only community in the state to lower taxes for five straight years,” said Finance Committee Chairman John Polimeni.
Officials said the budget’s $2.9 million in projected casino revenue is critical for keeping taxes down.
“Without casino revenue, we would have to increase taxes 12 percent,” said City Council President Ed Kosiur.
Riggi and Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo previously criticized the budget negotiations as pre-determined and opaque.
But Polimeni countered that the Finance Committee inserted nine of 12 requests by lawmakers for budget amendments, which demonstrated the process was flexible.
The City Council also reversed course and unanimously voted to restore the city’s fair housing coordinator position, which the Department of Development proposed stripping from the budget, citing efficiencies generated by the pending merger between Better Neighborhoods Initiative and Community Housing Trust.
“We want to ensure all people have the option to afford the housing that they deserve,” said Councilman John Mootooveron, who introduced the amendment.
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield was initially against the reduction and cautioned against any attempts to eliminate the position in the future, which pays $56,246 annually through federal Community Development Block Grant funds.
“I think there were those of us who knew how important it was when deliberating that at the table and advocating for that position,” Porterfield said.
The Rev. Phil Grigsby, executive director of Schenectady Community Ministries, also advocated for the job, noting fair housing enforcement is not typically in the nonprofits’ wheelhouse, and is necessary to stave off both “symbolic and moral” attacks on minorities.
He also praised a $1,000 allocation for the Civilian Police Review Board for training conferences.
Outstanding items not contained in the budget include the police and fire union contracts and collective bargaining agreements up for renegotiation.
Polimeni said money for those items would be taken from fund balance.
“Police and fire contracts alone cost $3 million, and we’re projected to be in that same range next year,” Kosiur said.
Riggi and Perazzo are also calling for tighter control on capital spending, including City Council oversight of any contracts over $50,000.
McCarthy countered that it’s up to City Council to change city code.
“All acquisitions and purchases are done in accordance with policies adopted by City Council,” McCarthy said.
Polimeni said after the meeting if all Riggi’s proposed amendments would have been adopted, city taxpayers would have seen a smaller tax cut.
“That may be,” he said. “But we’re losing services.”
Total city-allocated spending on Smart Cities is now at $7 million
Several council members also continued to renew concerns that the taxpayer-funded initiative lacks transparency and remains mysterious to the public.
“A lot of people don’t know what it’s about, and how they’re going to be impacted,” said Porterfield.
Residents have also relayed concerns over the upcoming ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology included in the capital spending plan, she said.
“If we’re putting millions into this budget line, we need to make sure they know what’s going on,” she said.
A report prepared by the Smart Cities Planning Commission in 2017 was given national recognition, said McCarthy, who didn’t specify after the meeting which organization bestowed that designation on the 61-page document.
After this article was published, McCarthy said it was the Horizon Award issued at the Smart 50 Awards gala in Kansas City, Missouri, last year.
The award issued by Smart Cities Connect, Smart Cities Connect Foundation and US Ignite is given to cities that demonstrate “foundational and inspiring groundwork for future smart cities projects,” according to the city.
City resident Mary McClaine said Smart Cities “should never have happened,” citing the risk of cyber attacks and the chronic problem of poorly maintained city property.
“This summer, the weeds in three lots were as tall as a five-year-old child,” she said. “Who owns those lots?”
McCarthy, Kosiur, Polimeni, Perazzo and Riggi are all running for re-election this year.
COUNCIL HONORS GAZETTE
City Council also adopted a resolution honoring The Daily Gazette for reaching its 125th anniversary.
“The Daily Gazette is truly appreciative for the recognition by the City Council,” said John DeAugustine, president and publisher of The Daily Gazette. “Our commitment to local journalism sometimes puts us at odds with the City Council, so to get their recognition is even more meaningful.”
Earlier that evening, city officials lit the City Hall clock tower blue to honor “Frozen,” which is premiering at Proctors next month.
Betsie Hume Lind, chairwoman of the board at The Daily Gazette, joked the designation was for the newspaper, which issues “Gazette Blue” awards to high-performing employees.
“Thank you, Gary [McCarthy], for making the extra step,” Lind said. “And we know ‘Frozen’ is coming too.”
Lind said the daily newspaper will be around for another 125 years.
“Please do subscribe,” she said.
Porterfield sponsored the resolution, which offered a brief overview of the locally-owned company’s history.