By Colin Hogan
The city of Fulton adopted its $15.7 million 2015 budget Tuesday, but not without some conflicting input from city taxpayers.
City officials heard more than an hour and 20 minutes of input from taxpayers in a public hearing Tuesday, including one who repeatedly beseeched the common council to table their vote on the spending plan and make further cuts to public safety.
The budget reflects $15,710,583 in city spending for next year, up $114,395 from this year’s $15,596,188. The city anticipates non-property tax revenues will total $9,324,102 next year, with another $6,464,816 to be generated in property taxes, which city officials can be achieved by maintaining the current tax rate of $19.662 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Mayor Ron Woodward Sr. said prior to Tuesday’s budget hearing that the city was able to balance the budget without a tax increase largely through personnel changes. By consolidating positions, and re-hiring staff who are retiring this year as part-timers, the city is spending about $200,000 less on personnel than it did last year, without any layoffs, Woodward said.
The city has also cut spending in several departments, including Parks and Recreation. Resident and planning commission member Dennis Merlino, who had previously requested that the city maintain its current appropriations for the parks, said Tuesday he understands those reductions had to be made.
“I see now that it just wasn’t practical or possible,” Merlino told the mayor and council. “But I am thrilled with the budget you have come up with – no tax increase.”
Merlino said it’s now up to the residents to pick up the slack as volunteers where the city has been forced to cut back.
“I would ask the people to step up and do their part. It’s time for each person to volunteer to do something that will help the city,” he said.
Merlino’s praise was matched by that of former city councilor Bob Weston, the first to speak at the hearing, who drew comparisons between Fulton’s and the city of Oswego’s budget to illustrate how efficient he felt Fulton’s is. Weston pointed out that, while Oswego has 55 percent more population, it’s budget is almost three-times as much as Fulton’s.
“I think you’ve done an excellent job on the budget. It was a difficult time. I know with all the retirements we’ve lost a lot of good people, we’ve had to make a lot of changes… all in all I think you’ve done a good job of controlling (spending) and making the cost-efficient operation of the city possible,” Weston said.
But others in attendance said there are still cuts that should be made, namely, in public safety. After praising city officials for “holding the line” on property taxes, Mark Aldasch, chairman of the Fulton Republican Committee, admonished them for not confronting what he called “the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
“I’ve got to be fair, you held the line (on taxes), but let’s talk about the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The 800-pound gorilla in the room in public safety,” Aldasch said
Aldasch called cuts that had been mentioned for the police department, such as scaling back the number of patrol vehicles and having officers pay their own cell phone bills, “small potatoes,” saying that the only cuts that would have a significant impact would be reducing the size of the police and fire forces. He drew a comparison using the city of Oneida, which he says has a similar population, but only about 24 officers each in its police and fire departments, compared to Fulton’s 35.
Aldasch repeatedly asked the council to table its vote on the budget until it could do some research on how Oneida manages its expenses.
“I’m asking you to table this budget… Take some time and take a field trip to Oneida… Go to our ‘sister city’ and see what they’re doing differently that you’re not doing here, because the ‘same old same old’ isn’t cutting it,” Aldasch said.
Aldasch continued: “You know the 800-pound gorilla is there and you won’t look at it. You won’t look it in the eye and address the issue. I understand that there’s contracts coming up, contract negotiations you have to negotiate in good faith. Look at Oneida. That’s your comparable… they’re doing it with half. They’re not in this position.
“It’s no offense to firemen or policemen. I appreciate everything they do and I’m thankful for them. But I’m saying that if another city can do it, (Fulton can)… You have to make the tough decision, you have to do more. I’m asking you on behalf of the taxpayers. Be a hero. Fall on the sword if you have to, that’s your job.”
After about 22 minutes of Aldasch’s comments, in which he called the council and mayor “a bunch of wimps” for not making more public safety cuts, Woodward accused him of belaboring the issue for a political gain, insinuating Aldasch has intentions to run for mayor. Woodward said tabling the budget that night would be impractical, and that Aldasch is “bright enough to know that we’re not going to settle a contract before Dec. 31.”
Aldasch denied the accusation, and reiterated his desire to leave Fulton if he were able to sell his house.
“I want to move! I don’t want to stay here!,” he shouted, before saying that the council and mayor aren’t looking out for the interest of the public.
The escalation was abruptly stopped by Merlino, who yelled from the back of the room “as a member of the public, I implore the council to take the vote tonight.”
The need to confront public safety spending was a constant refrain among other speakers, too. Attorney Salvatore Lanza questioned the need for 35 firefighters and 35 police officers in a city Fulton’s size.
“I think we could get by in Fulton with 24 or 25 police officers,” Lanza said. “Eight officers a shift. Two police cars on the east side, two cars on the west side — there’s four. During the day you’re going to need an investigator and maybe a deputy investigator, they’re working on cases to solve them — there’s six. Certainly they’re downstairs next to that window. There doesn’t have to be a police officer at the window… Most police departments you call 911 and they say ‘the officer will meet you at the police department.'”
Woodward later noted that a staff of 24 officers with eight on per shift, three shifts per day, doesn’t take into account weekend, vacation or sick day coverage.
Oswego County Legislator and Fulton resident Frank Castiglia Jr. asked the council to consider closing the west side fire station and selling to building to get it back on the tax rolls. It was later pointed out that the station is the only one with a big enough bay to house Engine No. 1. That door was custom fit after the manufacturer mistakenly made the truck larger than the city had requested. The modifications to the door were done at the company’s expense, Woodward noted.
Castiglia also suggested small cuts in other departments, but ultimately praised the city for keeping taxes level and for making tough decisions in drafting the spending plan.
“Whenever you have a zero percent tax increase, it’s a good budget,” Castiglia said.
The council unanimously adopted the budget immediately after the public hearing was concluded.