Lawmakers sound off about Watertown’s proposed layoffs & tax hikes

Updated: May. 1, 2020 at 5:37 PM EDT
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WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - Twelve people would be laid off and property taxes would hike by more than 6 percent under the city of Watertown’s proposed 2020-21 budget.

The proposal released by city officials Friday morning calls for eliminating 23 positions, 11 of which are or will be vacant.

Taxes are projected to hike 6.65 percent. That would mean the property tax bill for the owner of a home assessed at $110,000 – the city’s average – would be $64.28 higher.

Come city council members are hoping to trim the property tax hike.

"People are suffering. They don't have the money that they did and to hit them with a tax increase really isn't what we want to do," said Council Member Sarah Compo.

“There is a lot of people that are not working and they’ve been forced out of work, so even a small amount like this is a big hit so we do have to work to get this down,” said Mayor Jeff Smith.

In city manager Ken Mix’s budget summary, he says the job losses and tax hike are because of an expected revenue shortfall of $3.7 million.

Of that, $2.5 million is loss of sales tax revenue, which Mix says is based on a “severe scenario” projected by the New York State Association of Counties.

“It is probably not severe enough,” Mix wrote, noting that the city’s main sources of sales tax revenue – car dealers, hotels, restaurants, and gas stations – are severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Proposed layoffs include three police officers, a part-time parking enforcement officer, a firefighter, a librarian, a maintenance worker, two people in the Information Technology department, two Parks and Recreation maintenance workers, and a part-time account clerk in Public Works.

Management employees will receive a 2 percent pay cut.

The city’s playground program, pool operation, and summer recreation program are being severely cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That, I have some concerns on because we have a high rate of poverty in the city so we do have a lot of undeserved children and with them not going back to school, I think that they’re going to want to have some sort of activity and social interaction," said Council Member Lisa Ruggiero.

The budget also doesn’t fund the zoo and the Community Action Planning Council.

Mix cautions against using the city’s projected $9.8 million fund balance – essentially a savings account – to balance the budget.

He said that more-than-expected losses in sales tax revenue and a possible state aid cut could reduce the fund below the $8 million the city needs for cash flow.

Mix notes that next year could be about as bad as this one.

“The current economic situation will turn out to be a recession and recovery time from a recession is usually longer than the recession itself,” he wrote.

Some council members wish the city hadn’t spent $1.5 million from its savings on the new Thompson Park pool project.

“That money was for the rainy day we didn’t know when it was going to come or how it was going to come but now that money isn’t there so I think that decision that was made by the previous council I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, was reckless and now unfortunately we’re dealt with what was left.," said Council Member Jesse Roshia.

“If we had that $1.5 million back right now, we would look at a 0 percent tax increase and many people not losing their jobs," said Smith.

“It would’ve been nice to bond for the whole thing and then we wouldn’t be in this position. So if 2 of my colleagues last year had voted to bond for it last year, then we wouldn’t be here," said Ruggiero.

The city council is expected to discuss the budget when it meets Monday night.

There will be a public hearing on it at 7:30 p.m. To participate people have to register ahead of time for the “GoToMeeting” here.

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