Taxes and fees are going up, but borrowing is going way down in the mayor’s proposed 2014 budget.
Schenectady will pay cash for two police cars, two fire vehicles, and for sewer and water repairs. Until now, the city has generally borrowed money for those items.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said the city needed to start “minimizing our borrowing,” particularly since interest rates are projected to rise.
“We have the opportunity to slowly wean ourselves off,” he said, adding it will eventually improve the city’s credit rating. And the purchases will be cheaper, since the city won’t have to pay interest.
But paying cash means the taxpayers must foot the burden of those purchases all at once, rather than spreading it out over four or more years.
Overall, the $79.6 million budget would increase the average homeowner’s tax bill by $68 a year. Of that, $38 would be in higher sewer and trash fees. The rest would be in additional property taxes, at a rate of $13.92 per $1,000 of assessed property.
Council members vowed to cut that down by the end of the month.
“It’s the council’s job to find areas where we can reduce spending or increase revenue,” said Councilman Carl Erikson, chairman of the finance committee. “It’s our job to go through it and find something.”
But he added that he supports the mayor’s no-loan philosophy.
“I like that idea. Generally, when you can manage your expenses out of your operating budget rather than borrow, that’s a good thing,” Erikson said. “The concept has merit.”
But there is one debt-related item in the budget. The mayor wants to amortize the city’s pension payments under a state system in which the city would pay more but would spread the payments out over time.
McCarthy said it was “prudent” to call for amortization, but noted that he was able to find enough savings in the budget this year to pay the full pension amount even though the 2013 budget also planned to amortize the payment.
He said he will try to repeat that success next year.
With the mayor’s effort to reduce debt comes an increase in sewer fees. Every property owner will be charged $19.51 more next year to help create a $750,000 repair budget. That way, the city won’t have to borrow money to make major repairs.
The water fee is going up too, but only for metered users. That increase will fund a $550,000 repair budget to avoid debt.
The mayor also raised the trash fee by $18.50 per unit — for which he directly blamed city residents.
“This is primarily due to the people who don’t recycle,” he said, adding that he could reduce that fee if recycling increases. The city doesn’t have to pay to get rid of recyclables, but must pay by the ton to dispose of all other waste.
Less than 8 percent of the city’s waste is recycled. When the city started its recycling program in 1992, residents set aside 25 percent of their waste for recycling.
But the real focus of the mayor’s ire fell on the owners of the 1,200 properties in the city that are not paying taxes.
“They drive up our costs, they tie up our resources and I would just like that message to go out that we don’t want them in the city,” he said.
He added that if they all paid their taxes, he would be able to offer a tax cut.
“If everyone were being responsible, we would be arguing over how much of a tax cut to give people,” he said. “We’re a few years away. But we are going to get there.”
His budget proposal assumes that $4.4 million in city property taxes won’t be paid next year. That’s slightly better than this year, when $4.8 million went unpaid.
“It’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not necessarily moving as fast as I would like.”
Foreclosing on and selling those properties is also not moving as quickly as he’d hoped. But he said the city is close to seizing 545 properties, and is arguing in court over the disposition of 551 other properties already seized.
In six years or less, he projected, the city will have dealt with all those properties.
“I’ve learned that this just moves slow,” he said. “When you think there’s a cookie-cutter mold, well, no, this house has something else. It’s a $10 million dollar deal, except it’s a $50,000 house. But it requires the same number of attorneys, staff hours, as a $10 million dollar deal.”
Some changes in the budget reflect recent criticism.
One of the deputy fire chiefs will be eliminated to help pay for the assistant fire chief position. No one will be laid off — the deputy chief who is promoted will have his former position eliminated. The salary will also be $125,320, down from the $130,000 that the council approved last month.
In that vote, Councilman Vince Riggi criticized the new position and the salary for it. He said he was pleased to see the change, but added that he still felt the assistant chief was overpaid.
The budget also includes $150,000 to replace the in-car video systems in the city’s patrol cars. Police have reported trouble with those cameras for years, and in some cases have turned the system off themselves by pressing a button on their collar microphone.
The system got widespread attention when prosecutors revealed in court this summer that they had no audio evidence from officers who entered Gloria Nelligan’s home to find her dead grandson. Prosecutors said the camera-microphone stopped working.
Nelligan was found guilty of murder Tuesday.
McCarthy said the system was old and would be replaced by a modern camera that could wirelessly download its recordings to a server in the police station. That would be more efficient than physically removing a memory core and downloading it each day, he said.
The mayor is also supporting City Clerk Chuck Thorne’s long-running effort to regulate dogs in the city.
The council has several times rejected Thorne’s proposal for a dog census, in which workers would go door to door to find unlicensed dogs, generally by hearing them bark in response to a knock or a doorbell.
This summer, Thorne began outreach on his own to get dog owners to license their pets, setting up a booth at vaccination clinics, festivals and fairs. He reported significant success, and the mayor included $22,500 to pay for part-time census-takers next year.
The council now has a month to rewrite the budget and vote on it. Meetings begin Wednesday at 5 p.m., at which the council will consider the dog census, all clerk’s office expenses and the city’s revenue projections.
On Thursday at 5 p.m. the council will review the budgets for the law department and the mayor’s office, as well as all employee benefits.
On Oct. 8 at 5 p.m., the council will review the police and fire budgets.
On Oct. 9 and Oct. 15 at 5 p.m., the council will review the budget for general services.
On Oct. 16 and Oct. 17 at 5 p.m., the council will review the finance department budget.
On Oct. 23 at 5 p.m., the council will review the water, sewer and golf funds, as well as the capital budget.
The public cannot comment at the review sessions, but people can comment at any council meeting, including the Oct. 28 meeting. A formal public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15.
The council must adopt a budget by Nov. 1