WATERTOWN — The financially-strapped Thompson Park Zoo will be getting half of the $100,000 that it requested from the city.
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The City Council on Monday night agreed to put $50,000 back into the proposed $41.9 million budget. Back in February, zoo officials asked for $100,000 from the city so it would not close and could put together a 5-year business plan for the future, but then the coronavirus financial crisis happened. Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith said it would be too big of a loss for the city and Thompson Park if the zoo closed.
“It would be gone forever,” he said. “If the zoo is gone, it’s gone forever.”
Larry Sorel, CEO and executive director of the zoo, said Tuesday he “was appreciative” of the support he received from council.
“We’re very grateful with all decisions that they had to make,” he said. “It’s true. If we closed, we would have been done.”
On Monday night, council members also agreed on a series of other moves that would add a total of $200,000 in the budget. They’re adding two IT positions and appropriating $10,000 to the Flower Memorial Library to pay for ebooks and the Community Action Planning Council of Jefferson County. Funding was left out of proposed budget for those programs.
The cost of the two IT positions will be $140,000. Mayor Smith said that they are needed because “the city is behind” with IT department functions while the city also is working on redesigning its webpage.
Council members also agreed to get down to the state tax cap of 1.99 percent, using $475,000 of the city’s fund balance to do it. City Comptroller James E. Mills advised against that move because it would leave about $7.5 million to $8 million in the account.
When deliberations began, the proposed budget carried a 6.65 percent tax rate increase, 23 layoffs and major cuts in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, all blamed on the coronavirus financial crunch.
“I think keeping under the tax cap is remarkable and amazing for what we’re going through,” Councilwoman Lisa Ruggiero said.
With adding the two IT positions, the city is still laying off nine people and not filling 12 vacant positions. The Parks and Recreation Department summer playgrounds and pool programs are the victims of the pandemic and won’t open this year.
Councilman Jesse Roshia said he wished more of the positions could have been saved. City Manager Kenneth A. Mix said that the city will try to bring back any of those positions if the financial problems improve.
Much of Monday night’s discussion revolved around criticism that residents did not have more of an opportunity for input in the budget process. On Monday night, Councilwoman Ruggiero said she received text messages from two residents who told her that they didn’t have enough of an opportunity to express their opinions on the budget.
Before Monday night, she heard from others with the same complaint and that social media was lit up about the issue. With City Hall closed because of the pandemic, residents said they could not comment during council meetings, she said.
But Mayor Smith and Councilman Roshia said residents were able to express their views about the budget in emails and phone calls they received. The mayor mentioned that a public hearing was held despite the pandemic.
“It was the best we could do (under the situation),” Councilman Roshia said.
On a suggestion by Councilman Ryan Henry-Wilkinson, council members agreed to hold another public comment session at 6 p.m. next Tuesday. Residents will be able to participate remotely.
Council members also agreed to hold off adopting budget until June 1, in hopes of hearing how much state aid that the city will receive. Mr. Mills doesn’t expect good news about state aid.
Council members also kept other cuts in the budget on Monday night.
Under the proposed budget, the library would be closed on Sundays and one evening of the week because 1.5 positions will be eliminated.
Under the proposed budget, four new police officers now completing field training would be cut, with one returning after an expected retirement in July.
A vacant engineer technician, a building maintenance and a code enforcement office position are among the other cuts. A receptionist in the engineering office recently retired and won’t be replaced.