Hundreds of residents from the city of Oswego packed the gym at Oswego Middle School on Thursday to voice their concerns about the city's proposed budget. The $34 million budget originally included a property tax increase of more than 80 percent. But the Common Council cut $2 million from the budget earlier this week, dropping the possible tax increase down to about 43 percent.
The biggest cuts to the budget came at the expense of the public works department, which could lose 15 of its 78 positions. Jody DelBrocco is with the union representing the DPW. He says those in charge cannot keep cutting from one section of the city.
"But 112 people that I do represent have made their sacrifices and you're asking us to do it again," DelBrocco said. "You are going to cripple the Department of Public Works to the point that it can no longer function. We are not going to be able to plow the snow with 15 less people in those trucks. That's half of the people that are assigned to do that work. It is not going to get done."
In a written statement made prior to the meeting, the Service Employees International Union noted that releasing the 15 city DPW employees will amount to about $47 a year in savings for the average taxpayer. The union also said since 2005, the DPW workforce has been reduced by 25 percent.
The city's Codes Enforcement Department would also be eliminated on Jan. 1. Pat Kelly has been a housing inspector in Oswego for the last 25 years. She says the move will hurt the city's quality of life.
"You're talking about quality of life for the city of Oswego," she said, "and yet, they're doing away with Codes Enforcement. I've got court cases pending. I've got paperwork all over my desk, and I was told at 3 o'clock [Wednesday] afternoon that my job has been discontinued."
She says she's more experienced to do that work. Her job, as with the others in the department, will be absorbed by the fire department.
Other quality of life items, like the city pool, were also placed on the chopping block.
But even with a reduction in the possible tax hike, senior citizens in the city, like David Barry, say there is no way they can afford to stay.
"I mean, it's getting to the point that people who retire can't afford to live here. We get a 1.5 percent increase in our Social Security this year," he argued. "You know what that amounts to? Fifteen dollars. What happens when your bills total more than you've got coming in?"
Brian Gardner, who lives in the seventh ward, felt the same way. He says if the property tax increases by more than 10 percent, he will be leaving the city.
"I can't do this," he said. "This high rate they put in already, then they lower it down, that's just to make people feel better. They knew they were going to put it on there to start with. And if they raise it that 41 (sic) percent, that's going to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Since we've been here, in five years, we bought a home and retired out of Scriba, we've had sewer increase by three percent, taxes by eleven percent increase, and our assessment went up $18,000. Plus this now, what can you do?"
Residents also had questions concerning pay increases for the Common Council president and vice-president, $5,000 and $2,500 respectively, and raises for the fire chief and police chief being tied together through a local law. As more questions came from the audience, the crowd grew restless looking for answers.
"That can be negotiated," one woman said regarding the law. "Didn't you just close a contract with one of the unions?"
"Yes," the mayor replied.
"Was that discussed about taking that clause out," she countered.
"I do not believe it was," Gillen said.
"So, the chief of police just got a $22,000 raise," she said. "Ok, so is the fire chief going to get that too?"
The groans became more vocal once Gillen said the raises in the police department union cost the city an additional $900,000, though he said the city had no idea what Oswego's situation would look like.
Other sticking points during the meeting centered around the city's purchase of the marina, Oswego Health's impact on the tax rolls by buying city blocks, taking them off the tax rolls and the city's ambulance service.
Also mentioned was an amendment to the charter in 2002, imposing a five percent tax cap if the city's budget increased. It was later changed in 2011, and removed by the Common Council. One member of the audience said the effort to remove the law had been done illegally and that it should have been put to referendum vote.
The city's attorney, Gay Williams, rebuked the claim, saying it didn't fit any type of special criteria.
"The law that eliminated the tax cap did not do so," Williams said. "It does not fall into that category or any other category that requires a mandatory referendum, that's why the council was able to legally do it without a referendum. I'm not talking about whether they should have or shouldn't have. I'm just speaking to clarify the facts and say that it was legally done."
Though some of those attending the public meeting say they don't blame the mayor and the current council for the hike, they do blame the administration for the severe increase following more than a decade of zero, or near zero, percent property tax increases.
The Common Council did propose starting a discussion to reduce its own ranks, from seven councilors down to four with an at-large position. That comment drew cheers from the crowd. Another public hearing will be held on Monday, with a vote on the budget possibly happening after that meeting.