Can the Utica budget go any lower?

UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) - At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Utica residents were given the chance to tell lawmakers exactly what they think about the proposed 2010-2011 budget for the City of Utica.

Roefaro originally proposed an 18 percent tax increase, which was met with criticism from the Utica Common Council. So, he recently proposed cutting seven police officer positions, which would bring the proposed tax increase down to eight percent.

As it stands now, the budget proposal is at a seven percent increase after the common council knocked another percent off. Roefaro said that were it seven or eight months ago, the tax increase would have been as high as 30 percent. He said he has since cut $1 million in payroll, and laid off 30 people.

Monday night, Mayor David Roefaro presented an amended budget proposal to the Common Council. In that proposal were a 8.43% property tax increase, the elimination of seven positions from the police department, and cuts across the board.

"We're trying to work with the public...we know that these are tough times and it is also tough times in government," Roefaro said.

One of the most vocal against the initially proposed 18% tax increase was Utica Common Council President William Morehouse.

"This has been the most aggressive council I've seen in my three budget terms," Morehouse said. "They've done a great job of getting this budget down. We did go into executive session and we did ask the council if they wanted to try and eliminate positions. Right now, with the state of affairs in America, with people losing their jobs left and right - it's very tough to have people losing their jobs. So, the council decided against that. So we're going to look at about a 7.2% tax increase."

The Mayor says the proposed cuts will save the city about $1 million dollars. Eliminating seven positions from UPD alone will save an estimated $320,000. Roefaro says at least three of those positions will be eliminated through attrition, possibly more. He is also trying to negotiate with the federal government to see if the city's 'COPS' grant can be saved.

"You've got to remember it's 11 percent that this council has brought this budget down," Morehouse said. "And kudos to them, because they've done a great job. Ed Bucciero, Jerome McKinsely, Jerry Kraus, the new council people - the people have done good by electing these people. They've done a great job, they're aggressive and we're going to make sure everybody's held accountable."

UPD Chief Mark Williams says he is already working on redistributing resources.

"Everybody says do more with less," Williams says. "But the reality is, less is less. We owe it to the citizens to make this work and we will make it work."

Common Council members say they are relieved the Mayor has gone back to the drawing board in an attempt to meet them halfway. Finance Committee chairwoman Joan Scalise says the amended budget proposal is something the Common Council can work with.

"I think this is the right time...everyone is reaching to the bottom of their pockets...we have to cut back," Scalise says.

She says the council will need a few days to review the new budget proposal. She thinks a vote could come as early as this Friday.

Many residents, though - as evident from the mayor's recent "tax talks" at area senior citizen facilities throughout the area - say that even a 7.2% tax increase is too much, and want it down further.

"It should be minus five percent," Morehouse said Wednesday night before the public hearing.

But is that possible?

"Anything's possible," he said. "Has this council done a good job? Yes. Has the mayor attempted to do everything he can to help us after his initial 18%? Absolutely. It's very difficult. People don't understand. Every one percent is 190,000 dollars. So, ten percent is $1.9 million. You don't just eliminate three people's positions and get that money. This is more difficult than people understand. Are we working with what we have to work with? Has this council done a great job? This is the best council I've seen. We have new people on board - thank you to the constituents for voting these people in and I look forward to the future. Next year is going to be a big year for us."

The mayor held his first 'tax talk' Tuesday at the North Utica Senior Center, where he told those in attendance that he and the Utica Common Council were able to pare down his proposed 18% property tax increase to around eight percent. Then, the seniors let loose with several questions.

First, a woman asked why, during such lean economic times, the mayor hired his cousin as his assistant. Mayor Roefaro responded by saying the city was lucky to have Angelo Roefaro-a top Syracuse University graduate- the majority of whose salary is paid through a grant from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Angelo Roefaro and Bloomberg's office forged a relationship while working on crime legislation.

Another senior asked the mayor to justify the Public Safety Commissioner's position. Mayor Roefaro's response to the senior was that the power structure was in place during the prior administration.

Mayor Roefaro told the crowd at the North Utica Senior Center that he and the council got the tax hike down by cutting positions at the Utica Police Department; three through attrition and four in the form of academy graduates who now will not be appointed to the department.

PBA Union President Sgt. Thomas Brady said he doesn't feel every option, other than taking cops off the street, was examined. Brady said there are perks - such as cell phones and take-home vehicles - that could have been explored before dismantling the core of public safety: the street cop.

Uticans continued to voice their frustrations on Wednesday at the second "tax talk," held at the Parkway Recreation Center.

About two dozen people attended the annual St. Patrick's Day luncheon at the Parkway Recreation Center. Mayor Roefaro was one of them, fielding questions about the budget proposal that carries with it is a tax increase of roughly more than 7 percent.

Roefaro tried to defend the proposal calling it "manageable."

However, some in attendance said that no tax increase is ever manageable.

"Because we are middle-income people and we can not afford it," said Carmelita Franco. "A lot of them are on social security. How are we supposed to afford it? How? Don't they care."

"Are you happy at all, encouraged at all that it was at 18 % and is now down to 7%?" asked Nancy Jankiewicz. "We can not afford 2%. Why would we be happy over 7%? We can't afford it as taxpayers to pay anymore taxes than we are doing (now)."

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