City to receive guidelines for $23M funding

Watertown City Hall. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith still has a goal of getting down to a zero tax increase, saying that the council still has a little bit of work to do on the proposed 2021-22 budget.

City Manager Kenneth A. Mix on Monday morning released his proposed budget, which calls for reinstating four police officers, the deputy fire chief and a librarian position. Council members received copies of the $45,956,488 fiscal plan Friday.

The budget plan carries a 2% tax increase, which would result in a tax rate of $9.14 per $1,000 of assessed value, up from $8.94 per $1,000, or a 20-cent increase.

“He’s presented a good budget,” Mayor Smith said Monday. “I think it’s a good start.”

While the positions were cut last year as the city faced a financial crisis caused by the pandemic, Mr. Mix proposes restoring the four police officer positions as was recommended in the city’s police reform plan. Last year’s police officer cuts included laying off three new officers who had just completed field training and the layoffs were expected to save the city about $400,000.

This year’s proposed budget also includes money to purchase both body and in-vehicle cameras for the police department, as recommended in the police reform plan.

Mr. Mix thinks “the financial picture for the upcoming fiscal year is better,” pointing out that sales tax revenue is better than projected, so he feels comfortable moving forward with restoring positions and adding staff.

Councilman Leonard G. Spaziani had a chance to glance at the proposed budget over the weekend but, as a new city official, he still needs to wrap his head around all the large figures in the fiscal plan, he said.

In complimenting Mr. Mix for putting together a good budget, Mr. Spaziani said he especially likes restoring the four police officer positions.

“I like what I see. That’s basically it,” he said, adding that he might want to make a few changes when council members meet with department heads to talk about the budget. “Until then, he’s doing an excellent job.”

Councilman Ryan Henry-Wilkinson said he was “relieved” that council members aren’t faced this year with having to eliminate positions like they were last year when the city had a $2.5 million shortfall.

“It’s a no-nonsense budget,” he said, adding that he’s happy it adds positions that were cut last year.

On Saturday, Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero supported bringing back the four police officers and the deputy fire chief, calling the proposed spending plan “a good budget.”

Mayor Smith said the proposed budget includes goals that the council has set and goals the community wants to see met.

The mayor thinks the council will focus on keeping long-term recurring expenses down.

He’s also satisfied that the proposed spending plan addresses his efforts for the city to establish a single-stream recycling program and taking the city’s refuse directly to the Development Authority of the North Country’s landfill in Rodman.

While there’s still work to be done to get there, Mr. Mix pointed out that the city is talking with DANC and Fort Drum about a shared transfer station for recyclables.

In his budget message, Mr. Mix stressed that the city needs to make the staffing changes to maintain city services, proceed with infrastructure improvements and accomplish council goals.

“This budget brings staff where it needs to be in some areas and starts the multi-year effort needed to mitigate the loss of hydropower revenue in 2030,” he wrote.

He proposes reinstating the fire department’s deputy chief position, which was cut when former deputy chief Russell Randall retired two years ago. Mr. Mix thinks the position should be restored, noting that the water, police and the public works departments all have at least two management positions, while the fire department has only the fire chief.

Filling the library position would help prepare for when Librarian Director Yvonne Reff retires, Mr. Mix wrote. He also proposes no longer using a safety consultant, while adding a position in the human resources department to handle those issues and workers compensation.

Other staffing proposals include promoting municipal 1 workers to light motor equipment operators because they already do that work. More funds are set aside to add seasonal workers in the parks and recreation department.

Previous job cuts have hurt the city’s ability to do its work, he wrote.

In his budget message, Mr. Mix said the theme of this year’s budget is completely different than last year’s “though the conundrum is the same.”

He recommends modest 4% tax increases over the next several years as the city will be faced with the so-called “financial cliff,” when it loses a hydroelectric contract with National Grid that produces millions of dollars in revenue every year. The hydro contract with National Grid expires in 2029.

The council has set a budget work session for May 10, but plans to add others to discuss different aspects of the budget.

Last week, the council established a May 3 public hearing to gather input on the possibility of approving a local law to override the tax levy limit established by the state, but Mr. Mix said that he didn’t expect it would be needed because the budget will most likely end up with a tax levy under the tax cap.

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