SCHENECTADY — The City Council reached a tentative budget deal on Friday that offers taxpayers a 1.54-percent tax cut.
Mayor Gary McCarthy’s initially-proposed 16-percent salary increase has been whittled to 4 percent.
But don’t expect City Hall to be lit in rainbow lights while city council members hold hands and sing kumbaya: Several lawmakers accused their colleagues of engaging in clandestine, backroom dealing when hammering out the budget agreement.
Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo dismissed the meeting as a “dog and pony show.”
“I’m highly disappointed this is a closed-door procedure,” Perazzo told Finance Committee Chairman John Polimeni. “You had your four votes before you walked in the door.”
Perazzo and Councilman Vince Riggi offered numerous amendments that were ultimately rejected, including reinstating the position of the fair housing coordinator, whose position under the current proposal would be eliminated on Jan. 1, and slashing $250,000 from the city’s Smart Cities initiative, instead allocating those funds for a new state-mandated courtroom.
“This is a done deal before walking in the door,” Riggi said. “I could have been home having supper.”
Lawmakers ultimately carved out an additional $330,000 in savings. But Perazzo wanted to see deeper tax cuts, noting the $20 million the city has socked away in the general fund as well as the water and sewer fund.
“We’re sitting on too much taxpayer money,” she said.
Council members have spent the past month making adjustments to the $112 million proposed spending plan McCarthy proposed late last month, which originally carried a more modest 0.46-percent property tax cut.
Polimeni said the proposed cuts were not feasible and defended the process as transparent.
“The committee’s job was to present an alternative to the mayor’s budget, and that’s what we did,” he said.
Lawmakers also opted to allocate $113,000 for 32 new traffic speed sign cameras.
With the proposed plan now OK'd by committee, the full City Council will vote on a budget on Monday.
City Council President Ed Kosiur originally wanted the city to set aside $400,000 funds for a proposed fourth courtroom at police headquarters, but said a meeting with key stakeholders, including McCarthy and Judge Felix Catena, changed his mind.
“I was very comfortable not putting anything into courtroom renovations based on the conversation with the judge,” Kosiur said.
The city charges the state Office of Court Administration (OCA) about $70,000 annually to lease space at City Hall, a number that may increase with additional courtroom space, he said.
McCarthy said after the meeting the renovations were still being discussed.
“Some OCA may pay for, some of which we may pay for,” he said.
He previously said costs could reach as high as $3 million.
And while Riggi issued a fresh round of criticisms of Smart Cities, citing concerns over transparency, cost and public interest — “Most people on the street when you talk to them, they don’t care about that and they don’t know what Smart Cities is” — McCarthy said there has been public buy-in, and City Council members are only now taking an interest in one of his administration’s key initiatives.
Lawmakers failed to attend a recent high-profile event at Union College that delved into the effort, he said.
“Members of City Council who were invited chose not to attend that with the exception of Mr. Polimeni,” McCarthy said.
When it comes to his salary bump, discussion indicated the 4-percent increase would be the only one sought for the next five years.
“It’s a substantial cut,” Kosiur said.
The now-scrapped fair housing coordinator position would soon be rendered unnecessary due to the pending merger between the Community Land Trust and Better Neighborhoods Initiative, city Director of Development Kristin Diotte told council members earlier this week.
Perazzo, Riggi and Councilwoman Marion Porterfield argued against slashing the position.
“I don’t see how we take that and turn over to another agency,” Porterfield said.
Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas said the city should trust managers to make the best decisions for their departments.
“I support managers being able to manage,” she said.
Riggi wondered if the elimination was for other reasons.
“Don’t ask City Council to do the work of [the Personnel Department]," Riggi said. "Are we eliminating a position or eliminating an individual? It seems to me like a persecution thing."
McCarthy is running unopposed for another four-year term next month. Polimeni, Kosiur, Perazzo and Riggi are also seeking re-election.