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Emotions run high as City Council debates budget, tax cap override

By Mike Pettinella

If the Batavia City Council votes to not override the state’s 2 percent tax cap at its March 9 meeting and send the 2020-21 budget ordinance back to the city manager for further cuts, it will serve only to make a bad situation worse.

That is the steadfast opinion of Manager City Martin Moore, who spoke out against further reduction in services and/or personnel during an emotionally charged City Council Conference Meeting tonight at City Hall.

“I can tell you in the strongest terms that our City employees do not deserve another $350,000 in cuts,” said Moore, responding to City Council President Eugene Jankowski asking what further cuts could be made if the board decides not to authorize a budget that currently calls for a 7.48 percent property tax rate increase -- from $8.92 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $9.59 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

At that new rate, property taxes on a house assessed for $100,000 in the City, for example, would be $959 -- an annual increase of $67 from a year ago.

The City is facing a $700,000 shortfall this year due to the loss of potential loss of more than $440,000 in Video Lottery Terminal funds generated by Batavia Downs Gaming.  The VLT money has always been part of the City’s budget. Things could change this year, however, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s has included those funds in the state budget.

Moore said that programs not critical to public health and safety would be the first ones on the chopping block. Those include youth and recreation programming, equipment replacement, travel/training seminars, and the elimination of temporary and part-time employees.

“We would look at cuts in the Batavia Development Corporation and even the K-9 (police dog) unit may not survive (being cut),” he said.

Moore defended the work of his department heads for finding $350,000 in expenses to slash, noting that youth bureau funding has been cut and an additional school resource officer, computer replacement programs and purchases, and vehicle replacement for the fire, police and public works departments already have been put on hold.

My personal feeling is that I think the City has struck the right balance between cutting expenses and asking the people in the community to step up with us and help us with the property tax levy," Moore said. "I know it's difficult -- it's difficult for all of us -- and it's very unfortunate that the state has a proposal (to take the VLT money) but it order to keep quality services, I think we need to stay right where we're at."

Jankowski said he put forth the “what if” scenario to “let the public know the gravity of what we’re facing. We’re looking at every line item.”

Initially, Moore’s budget came with a 0.97 percent property tax hike, a figure in line with the previous two budgets that had no tax increases. That fact wasn’t lost on Council Member John Canale.

“I always say, ‘get it under 1 percent and then we’ll talk,’ ” Canale said. “But now our wonderful leader in Albany has decided to steal some money from us.”

Canale then, respectfully, called out Council Member Rose Mary Christian for objecting to the revised budget despite the board sifting things out during several budget sessions.

Christian, along with Council Member Paul Viele, voted no to sending three resolutions to the Council’s Business meeting next month -- overriding the tax cap, the budget itself and establishment of new water rates (3.5 percent increase), meter fees and capital improvement fees. They all passed by a 7-2 margin.

Earlier in the debate, Christian said she didn’t think Council took enough time to discuss potential cuts, believing that it was left in the hands of the department heads.

“That’s b--- s---,” she said, not holding back.

Jankowski took offense to Christian’s view and, a bit later, Canale questioned her motives.

“It’s almost our final meeting and now we’re doubting the budget … after hammering out $350,000 in cuts,” he said. “Now we’re second-guessing that budget. We have to do it (override the tax cap). Our people see what Governor Cuomo did; they’re not idiots.”

Council Member Kathleen Briggs agreed.

“We can’t go down that road (of finding more to cut),” she said. “We can’t do that to these departments, and I don’t think he (Moore) has to give us a scenario.”

Jankowski reiterated that it is possible that Council votes to not override the cap, but said that in any event, the citizens of Batavia realize the board’s dilemma.

“They’re angry, but they understand and they are with us,” he said.

Previously, Council Member Robert Bialkowski took a jab at Cuomo and then gave credit to his colleagues and city officials for finding a way to close the monetary gap.

“I’m proud of Council and administration,” he said. “We got the first budget done but then threw it in the trash and started over. The manager and department heads made this happen.”

Bialkowski said the board is “not happy about raising property taxes on ourselves, but the budget now puts the least financial burden on taxpayers.”

During the budget public hearing, City residents David Twichell and John Roach spoke, with the former asking Council to reconsider cutting funds to the youth bureau and the latter suggesting that Council should use money earmarked for the Batavia Development Corporation to instead restore the school resource officer position.

“We have a brand-new youth center on Liberty Street … with 400 (kids) registered to use the facility – twice as much as before,” Twichell said. “What better way to invest our hard-earned tax dollars than to the youth of our community?"

Roach said he understood that Council didn’t see the loss of the VLT money coming and raising taxes by more than 7 percent is “not how you gain popularity.”

He said he is disappointed that the SRO was cut.

“You give $100,000 to pay the salary of a person who is not a city employee (BDC executive director) and not for a second SRO who is going to protect kids,” he said. “I’d rather see a police officer to protect the schools.”

Council Member Al McGinnis, the board liaison to the youth bureau, also said he was against cutting youth programming but said all (departments) have to take the cuts equally.

Bialkowski responded to the BDC suggestion by noting that it would difficult to find a volunteer to work the hours needed to coordinate development projects in the city, singling out the much-anticipated Ellicott Station mixed-use redevelopment initiative.

“Once you start down that road, you might as well leave the community,” he said. “It will be a ghost town.”

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