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What you need to know for 01/21/2017

Schenectady fee hikes pass hurdle

Schenectady fee hikes pass hurdle

The city simply has too little money to get by without increasing fees, City Council members said Mo

The city simply has too little money to get by without increasing fees, City Council members said Monday.

In committee, they informally agreed to go ahead with an unpopular price increase for death certificates, birth certificates and copies of marriage licenses.

They also agreed to raise the fee for weddings and other events held in the Rose Garden, but not to pass that revenue along to the volunteers who maintain the garden.

The volunteers asked the council to raise the fee from $10 to $25 an hour for residents, and from $50 to $100 for nonresidents. But the volunteers said they wanted the city to give them every cent raised through the fee, so that they could pay for rose bushes, irrigation maintenance and other items needed to keep the garden in good shape.

At first, some council members had said they liked that idea.

But now they’ve nixed it.

“We would be giving up $10 by raising it to $25,” Councilman Carl Erikson said.

And that $10 fee adds up to so much money that the city can’t do without it, Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam said.

“We get pretty nice revenue from it. We should keep that revenue for the city,” she said. “Part of the increase can go to them.”

Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, who is running for election, was the only member to speak in favor of giving the fee to the volunteers.

“They’ve been doing this out of their own pockets,” she said.

Other council members argued that it would be irresponsible to simply hand over the fee without knowing how the volunteers would spend it.

“I think it’s a little bit dangerous. We have to know where it’s going,” Councilman Carl Erikson said.

Corporation Counsel John Polster added that a fee-sharing agreement could go wrong if the volunteer organization fell apart someday. The organization formed in 1995 after the city stopped maintaining the garden because of the cost of the work.

“What if they go out of business?” Polster said.

Councilwoman Margaret King said the volunteers could submit requests for specific projects to be funded by a portion of the fee.

Council President Denise Brucker agreed with that idea.

“What we decide to do with it is up to us,” she said.

Ultimately, the council agreed to raise the fees and not guarantee any of the money to the volunteers, but held out the possibility of giving some funds to the volunteers upon request.

The city’s tight finances were also to blame for the new fee on birth, death and marriage certificates.

Those who are willing to wait up to two weeks can get a certificate for $10. Those who want it right away must pay $20 for priority service, under the proposal. Currently, residents can get a certificate immediately for $10.

Some funeral home directors have objected to the priority fee, saying it’s offensive to charge grieving families more for copies of a death certificate. Some families need several certificates so they can apply for life insurance and other benefits, and in some cases they may need those benefits right away to handle financial problems caused by a breadwinner’s death.

City Clerk Chuck Thorne said the price increase covers the city’s costs to maintain its machines and pay its staff.

“I was told, the last three months, I have to cut costs. I can’t cut costs. Technology has taken all the fat out of the cost of doing business. Several positions have been cut and if you keep cutting people you can’t provide the services we provide,” he said.

“If you can’t cut costs anymore, the only option as I see it is to increase revenues.”

At first, some council members were won over by complaints that it was unfair to charge the extra fee on every copy, since the copies are all made by machine. One funeral director said it was wrong to charge more for a clerk to press a 9 than to press a 1 on the copy machine.

“Maybe the fee applies to the first copy and not multiple copies, as a compromise?” Erikson asked. “If they order one and say, ‘Send me five more when you get them done,’ do we put them on a shelf?”

But Thorne said workers have to do more than simply operate a copier. They must emboss and stamp each copy, and he argued that it’s better time management to emboss dozens of certificates at once, rather than doing them a few at a time, whenever a customer comes in.

Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo was convinced.

“We’re giving people an option to get it for the same price,” she said.

Brucker added, “I understand everyone’s concerns, but it’s not like we’re raising it to $50.”

The council voted informally to make the price increase. Both fees will be on next Monday’s agenda for a final vote by the full council.

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