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Ogdensburg comptroller says council’s budget goal far-fetched

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OGDENSBURG — A city official threw water Wednesday on City Council members’ assertions that the city would maintain current services while delivering a budget within a state-mandated tax cap — even as councilors maintained it could be done.

City Comptroller Philip A. Cosmo dispelled the council’s notion that it could reduce the property tax levy increase below 2 percent at a budget work session Wednesday night.

“I think it’s going to be very hard to keep the level of services we have now and stay under two percent,” he said. “I don’t see how it’s possible.”

Councilor R. Storm Cilley said that Ogdensburg’s council may have dug its own hole.

“We’re paying for the years we put off buying equipment to keep the tax rate low,” he said. “We’ve got 30-year-old trucks that normally have a 20- to 22-year life expectancy. Eventually, that was going to come back to haunt us.”

Still, most council members remained optimistic that they would be able to slash the budget.

“Times are tough. I cannot go to the citizens and say here’s a 10 percent tax increase,” Councilor Wayne L. Ashley said. “I think there’s a way to trim the budget and come up with 2 percent.”

The proposed budget calls for the property tax levy, or amount raised by taxes, to increase from $4,459,136 in 2012 to $4,931,106 next year, a gain of $471,970 or 10.6 percent. To stay within the property tax cap, council members would have to trim $382,787 from the $19,638,757 proposed budget.

In recent years, tax hikes were held off by deferred maintenance of city property and delayed equipment purchases.

Mr. Cosmo said Ogdensburg also was helped by recent retirements and by underestimating the amount of state funding the city would receive.

“Last year we had a window of opportunity: we cut the state aid projection in our budget the year before, and the aid was actually higher than we expected,” he said. “We actually had a tax reduction last year. With several retirements, we went from upper-level pay scales to entry-level pay scales. That isn’t the case this year.”

In previous work sessions, council members have discussed funding for recreation and outside agencies, but on Wednesday, the council talked about the police and fire departments. Together, the departments account for more than 55 percent of the city’s general fund expenditures.

Council members made clear that public safety was no longer a sacred cow.

Councilor Daniel E. Skamperle questioned $8,900 of requests for firefighters’ personal protective equipment.

“I’m thinking about cutting some of your specialized equipment, but I need to know if you can live with it,” he told Fire Chief Steven M. Badlam.

Mr. Badlam said some equipment was aging or damaged and would have to be replaced, and any newly hired firefighters would have to be outfitted.

“I may be able to live with less than I am asking for,” he said.

Mr. Skamperle also advocated 12-hour shifts for the Ogdensburg Police Department.

“I believe it would save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it depends on how it’s managed,” to reduce overtime and redundancy in staff, he said.

Mayor William D. Nelson suggested that Ogdensburg might consider moving to a volunteer or partial volunteer fire department in the future.

“We’re throwing everything out there, looking for every penny,” he said. “I want to know what would happen if we don’t incur those expenses.”

Ogdensburg has the only fully professional fire department in St. Lawrence County.

The council likely will approve a budget at its Monday meeting.

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