The Kingston Common Council on Dec. 3 unanimously approved a 2020 budget that freezes the tax levy for the fifth year in a row, while funding pay hikes for lawmakers, a dozen new positions in city government and new amenities like Wi-Fi in city parks.
The budget developed by Mayor Steve Noble and City Comptroller John Tuey was passed by the council largely unchanged.
The spending plan totals $44,464,333. Of that, $17,650,940 will be funded through property taxes. Property tax rates for residential properties will decline from $9.73 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $9.04. The tax rate for “bon-homestead” commercial properties will drop from $15.59 per $1,000 to $14.24. The budget will also place more than $1 million in the city’s contingency fund to pay retroactive raises and other costs associates with an expected settlement with the Kingston PBA, which has been working without a contract since 2016.
The council also approved taking $548,000 from the city’s fund balance to pay for police vehicles and other short-shelf-life equipment that would otherwise be paid for through bonding. Tuey said that the cash purchases would save taxpayers interest costs in the long run.
During his re-election campaign, Noble and Tuey came under fire for budgets that consistently ended with a substantial surplus in the city’s fund balance. City policy calls for maintaining a fund balance between 10 and 13 percent of the total city budget; 2018 ended with the fund balance standing at 18 percent of the total budget. The excess funds have been used for public improvements, like realigning a Midtown intersection by purchasing and demolishing a long-vacant former fast-food restaurant, and paving projects not included in the original city budget. Mayoral challenger Vince Rua claimed that Noble’s administration has consistently overstated expected costs and understated anticipated sales tax and other revenue. Noble defended his budgets, citing the fluctuating nature of sales tax revenue and the importance of maintaining a healthy fund balance to account for unanticipated expenses. Noble’s supporters say that three years of declining tax rates point to sound budgeting.
“We still held the line on taxes,” said Alderwoman-at-Large-elect Andrea Shaut, who’s wrapping up her term as Ward 9 alderwoman this month. “If we were raising taxes I would agree that [excess fund balance] should go towards lowering them. But this is an opportunity to provide better services for the whole city.”
Raises for mayor, council
Among the items funded in the new budget are pay raises for elected officials. As proposed in Noble’s budget, the mayor’s salary will increase in $5,000 annual increments from its current $75,000 to $100,000 in 2024. The council meanwhile included raises for themselves not contained in Noble’s budget. Annual salaries for aldermen will go from their current $8,000 to $9,000 next year. The alderman-at-large will receive a pay hike from $10,000 to $11,000. In both cases, supporters of the raises noted that Kingston lags behind similar communities in compensation for elected officials.
Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) noted that salaries for aldermen had not increased since 1996. Scott-Childress also pointed to a study by the New York Commission of Municipalities which found the median salary for city council members in and around the Hudson Valley is $10,000.
Shaut acknowledged that pay raises for elected officials were controversial, but she said she supported the move as a way to diversify the pool for people seeking elective office.
“It’s not just about getting good people to run for office, it’s about getting people from different income brackets,” said Shaut. “Because right now it’s only people who can afford to take all of the time you need to do the work for not much money.”
Land bank boosted
The budget also provides $3 million in funding over two years for the city’s land bank. The new agency is charged with taking vacant properties held by the city for unpaid taxes, refurbishing them and marketing them to first time homebuyers. Money included in the spending plan will fund operations and pay to move the city’s Office of Economic and Community Development to a refurbished property on Franklin Street. Noble said the relocation was intended to place the office in the heart of the community it is designed to serve.
The 2020 spending plan will also fund new bulletproof vests for the KPD and a new engine for the fire department. The budget also includes funds to settle a long-running contract dispute with the PBA. Rank-and-file members narrowly rejected the city’s last contract offer. The matter is now in binding arbitration and is expected to be settled sometime next year.
The budget will also fund the city’s takeover of management of Dietz Stadium from the Kingston City School District and allocates $150,000 for Wi-Fi in city parks. Other funds will go towards improvements at Block and Loughran parks and a new skateboarding facility at Hasbrouck Park.