Viewers of the country-flavored television variety show "Hee Haw," a popular offering in the late 1960s and early 1970s, may remember the musical bit that featured the line “gloom, despair and agony on me; deep, dark depression, excessive misery.”
Batavia City Council members left tonight’s Business Meeting at City Hall with similar feelings, mixed in with anger directed at Gov. Andrew Cuomo, after reluctantly overriding the state’s 2 percent property tax cap and then passing a 7.5 percent property tax increase as part of the City’s 2020-21 budget.
“Regretfully,” said Council Member Patti Pacino as she joined Robert Bialkowski, Kathleen Briggs, Al McGinnis, John Canale and Council President Eugene Jankowski in casting a “yes” vote on overriding the tax cap. Paul Viele and Rose Mary Christian cast dissenting votes.
After that, the same five voted to adopt the $17.8 million general fund spending plan, with Paul Viele and Rose Mary Christian again voting “no.”
The third piece of the budgetary puzzle – raising water rates by 3.5 percent – came next, with six votes in favor of passage to more than offset Christian’s “no” vote.
Council member Jeremy Karas did not attend the meeting.
The property tax rate increases to $9.60 per $1,000 of taxable assessed value – a jump of 7.5 percent -- and about $67 more per year on a house assessed at $100,000.
“It was very disappointing to have to pass such a large tax increase,” Jankowski said following the meeting. “It was very disappointing to have to exceed the tax cap that the governor himself set upon all the municipalities. And then he turns around and his budget makes it very difficult for us to not exceed the tax cap. It’s very confusing and very disappointing.”
Jankowski said Council did the “best we could under the circumstances.”
“We’re working really hard in the next 12 months because now that money is not going to be there going forward,” he said. “And it’s not going to go away, and I’m not in favor of raising the taxes again.”
Calling it a “nightmare,” Bialkowski placed the blame squarely on Cuomo for taking about $440,000 in video lottery terminal money generated by Batavia Downs Gaming from the City and leaving the City no choice but to draft (and pass) a resolution asking Cuomo to give the VLT funds back to Batavia.
Canale, McGinnis and Jankowski also expressed their disdain for Cuomo’s action, while City Manager Martin Moore simply stated that “we need that money restored.”
“Assemblyman (Steve) Hawley and Senator (Michael) Ranzenhofer are both calling for the restoration of the funds and this (resolution) supports that,” he said.
Before acting on the budgetary resolutions, Council heard from a pair of City residents – Nancy Ewert, who felt the board could have cut more administrative expenses, and John Roach, who blamed the governor and the Democratic party in Albany for the City’s financial dilemma.
“I think you need to go back to the drawing board,” Ewert said. “For you to raise money for your projects on my back is unacceptable."
In response, Bialkowski said Ewert’s contention that there were closed-door meetings was not true, and justified Council’s use of the VLT money as revenue in the budget.
“Some say we shouldn’t have used the VLT money,” he said. “Should we have put it in the basement or put it under our pillow? Of course, we used it for our budgetary reasons.”
Canale agreed with Bialkowski and noted that the City used to keep the VLT money in a separate fund before New York State “demanded that we start using the VLT money toward operating costs.”
“That’s why we’ve enjoyed a level tax rate the past few years … and have maintained services,” he said. “This was an event that wasn’t expected. The tax increase was .97 percent. But if you all want services that you enjoy, there’s no other way around it. Cuomo said ‘I need it and you guys figure out what you’re going to do.’ ”
Following the meeting, Ewert called out Council for a flawed budget process.
“They say that they have to break the tax cap in order to fund the City government, and yet they can explain away $400,000 in increases – and they’re increases in administration,” she said.
“They’re not increases in police work; they cut the police budget. They froze the fire department budget and they absolutely, I mean annihilated, the youth budget. It’s like down to around $8,000 for the year.”
Ewert said youth services in the City leave a lot to be desired.
“We have a problem in Batavia for our youth. We don’t have alternatives to keep these kids off the street,” she said. “The ice rink is great but it’s not the only answer. We do we not have an indoor basketball court that’s available for free to these City kids. I know the Y exists; it’s not free.”
She also questioned the water rate increase.
“And the whole issue with the water. Now they say we have to pay another 3 point something percent because we need an infrastructure backup plan. Where is our guarantee they’re not going to spend that somewhere else, because that’s what they’ve done in the past?”
Roach said he wasn’t happy with the 7.5 percent tax increase but admitted there was “no wiggle room now.”
“Don’t fault the Republicans on City Council or Batavia Downs,” he said. “It’s strictly the fault of the Democrats and Governor Cuomo.”
Bialkowski said he despises property taxes on homeowners but added that “we need to navigate through this.”
“I wish you were here during some of our workshops,” he said. “We dissected every single line item. There are no winners … we are all losers. But I didn’t hear any solutions (during the workshops) so now’s the time to set aside personal prejudices (and vote).”
Christian responded by informing the board that she gave a list of things to cut to the city manager last week, and Viele shot back at Bialkowski for trying to dictate to the rest of Council on how to vote.
“It’s not a political thing or a Ward thing,” Viele said. “I’ll vote the way I want to vote.”