Kingston lawmakers met this past Monday for the first in a series of sessions to hammer out a final 2012 budget. With city services stripped to the bone and six of the council’s nine voting members set to step down in January, however, there appears to be little momentum for major changes in how the city operates.
The budget proposed by mayor James Sottile last month calls for draining $1.2 million from a reserve fund, a move critics say would leave the city perilously short of cash and delay painful choices until next year.
Sottile’s budget, released in October, totals $36.5 million, with $14.8 million to be raised in property taxes. For residential property owners, the tax hike would be .67 percent. Commercial properties would see their share of the tax levy decrease by .72 percent.
Sottile said that he was determined to submit a budget in compliance with the new state-mandated two-percent property-tax cap. With an $844,000 increase in mandated expenses, he said he had no choice but to tap into the tax levy. In the face of strong public disapproval, Sottile backed off a plan to save about $700,000 annually by eliminating municipal trash pickup. If the council approves Sottile’s fund-balance drawdown, it would leave $1.3 million in remaining cash reserves.
At Monday’s meeting of the council’s Finance and Economic Development Committee, talks focused on a few details of the mayor’s proposal, including a plan to transfer five laborers, and shifting responsibility for maintaining city parks from the Department of Parks and Recreation to the Department of Public Works. The committee also made plans to go over departmental budgets with department heads. Committee chairman Charlie Landi, who along with minority leader Andi Turco-Levin attended a series of budget talks between department heads and Sottile, believes the initiative will prove largely fruitless.
“They’ve already counted every paper clip and every rubber band,” said Landi. “I know, I was there.”
But Turco-Levin, who will leave the council next year after a failed mayoral bid, said that it would be irresponsible to raid the fund balance without taking a serious look at proposals to change how city government functions with an eye towards saving money. Turco-Levin’s introduced a series of measures, including combining the city’s economic development and community development offices. Turco-Levin also suggested eliminating the position of Urban Cultural Parks coordinator. noting that the city’s gift shop was projected to generate a dismal $100 next year. She said that most of the office’s functions could be taken over by volunteers, business groups or the city clerk’s office.
It was too late in the budget cycle to seriously consider merging county and city bus services this year, she said. But the Citibus operation could generate revenue by selling advertisements on its fleet of vehicles. Turco-Levin, a real-estate broker, has been a critic of the city’s assessment process. She calls for either eliminating the position of deputy assessor or dropping the city’s contract with appraisal consultant GAR Associates.
“If we just took what the mayor put on the table without serious changes, we would only accelerate the problems we’re facing,” said Turco-Levin.
In addition to Turco’s proposals, Landi said, the committee should also question fire chief Rick Salzmann about the practice of city firefighters responding to medical emergencies. The protocol, which dates to the mid-1980s. requires a fire department response for all EMT calls. Firefighters treat and stabilize patients but, because the department does not have its own ambulance it must turn them over to a private ambulance for transportation to a hospital. As a result, the department is unable to bill insurance companies for the EMT work.
Landi said the practice needed to change. He planned to ask Salzmann whether it would make more sense for the city to invest in its own ambulance or for the department to drop EMT service all together, leaving it in the hands of the private sector.
“We have to do something about that,” said Landi. “It’s a practice that dates back to better times when we didn’t have to pinch pennies just to maintain essential services.”
Alderwoman Jennifer Fuentes sounded the sole note of support not only for not increasing taxes, but also for holding a special vote to override the two-percent tax cap. The measure, Fuentes said, was a better option than tapping the reserve fund.
“We can’t drain the fund balance for $1.2 million when the sewers keep breaking,” said Fuentes. “We have all kinds of bills coming down the line, and our bond rating is going to be in the tank.”