By Debra J. Groom
Oswego residents will get their last chance to comment about the proposed city budget at tonight’s public hearing.
The hearing is at 7 p.m. in the Common Council chambers at City Hall. The council may vote to adopt a budget after the hearing, or, if more changes need to be made, could meet later in the week to adopt a budget.
So far, the council have whittled the budget down about $4 million, which has knocked about $4 a $1,000 off the proposed tax rate increase.
“They have taken my budget and edited it,” Mayor Thomas Gillen said. “They were pretty strong with the red pencil.”
With Gillen’s preliminary budget, taxes were set to increase about 82 percent – from $10.03 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $18.25 per $1,000. Owners of an average house assessed at $70,000 would pay $575 more in taxes in 2014 than in 2013 if cuts weren’t made.
But cuts have been made.
Gillen said some jobs that are vacant will not be filled. Fifteen positions are being cut in the Department of Public Works. Three people are being laid off in code enforcement. The city also is looking at unpaid two-week furloughs for city workers.
To date, the tax rate has been cut from $18.25 per $1,000 to $14.39 per $1,000.
Gillen said he isn’t happy with the layoffs.
“People are unhappy with the tax increase. I understand that,” he said. “But I think their anger may be clouding the decision making process.”
Common Council President Ron Kaplewicz, R-7th ward, said this is going to be a tough year to get through a budget.
“The options are: raise taxes, cut people or cut programs and services,” he said. “We’re looking at what we need to do for 2014. This is like tough love. We’re just beginning to take a hard look at how we do business.”
Some of the primary problems affecting the budget:
** A loss of assessed value in the city of about $50 million. When the city loses assessed value, other taxpayers have to make up that money to keep the services and programs going.
** An addition of about $400,000 for health insurance changes due to the federal Affordable Health Care Act.
** $300 million in city property that is not on the tax rolls. Kaplewicz said some of these properties, such as the hospital and the YMCA, obtain services from the city but do not pay taxes.
Gillen is worried cutting the Department of Public Works will leave the department short if the city is hit with a huge snow storm. He said people who have come to Oswego from other places “marvel at the way we remove snow” and he wonders if there will be enough people to keep snow off the roads if people are laid off.
There are 81 budgeted positions in DPW, but three positions are vacant so there are 78 employees right now.
Kaplewicz said part of the city’s problem is it didn’t raise taxes for so long that now, it has to have a huge tax hike to keep up with increasing costs. He said for 15 years, “tax increases were almost negligible.”
“I believe that was a mistake,” he said.