By JAMES CUMMINGS • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – It’s unanimous. The $20 million budget for 2020 has passed.
The Oneonta Common Council voted tonight on the city’s 2020 budget and approved it unanimously.
Two weeks ago, the council met to discuss the initial proposal for the $20 million budget for 2020, which had included two full-time firefighting positions, a 10 percent sewer rate increase, and a 2.5 percent property tax increase.
After that proposal was largely rejected by the Common Council and the Mayor, they asked City Manager George Korthauer to adjust it.
The initial budget proposal had a $500,000 increase in payroll, including union costs and benefits for city workers.
Korthauer worked with Director of Finance Virginia Lee to bring that down to $250,000 by cutting several positions, including a full-time firefighter slot. “We’re trying to be very conservative,” said Lee. “The list is very long. It’s a constant review.”
To ensure that the fire department isn’t lacking, the new budget includes several part-time positions. In total, there are five new positions in the city that include public work such as street and infrastructure, as well as a new code enforcement position.
“Infrastructure has a life,” said Korthauer. “This Oneonta group is very talented. They handle maintenance and construction.”
“The city’s team is just wonderful,” added Lee.
Yet another expense in the initial proposal was a 10% sewer rate increase. This would cover the maintenance of pipes, operation of the wastewater treatment plant, and repairs to the sewer system.
The current plant, which is at least 40 years old, needs work. “It’s like a well-oiled machine,” said Korthauer. “We need to bring it back up to its original design.”
That cost would equate to a minor increase in water bills, but the common council expressed concern that this would weigh too heavily on city residents. “Cumulatively, it’s an impact on people,” said Russ Southard, 6th ward.
Korthauer was able to lower the sewer rate to 5 percent by putting off certain renovation projects until the following year.
The total of additional costs initially equaled as much as a 2.5 percent increase in city property tax, which Herzig and the council insisted be lowered. “I don’t want to see a 2.5 percent tax increase,” said Melissa Nicosia, 2nd ward.
Korthauer and Lee were able to lower the tax rate to 1.75 percent by cutting positions and lowering sewer costs, but also due to a new law passed earlier this year that requires out-of-state online retailers to collect sales tax on purchases.
A percentage of the corresponding tax dollars (anticipated to be 12.5 percent) ends up in Otsego County in the form of tax revenue, which allows the city to make budget adjustments without a burden on taxpayers. “We’ve never used a tax levy in the history of the city,” said Korthauer.
Mayor Gary Herzig also expressed his concerns for the city charter. “Our charter short-changes the people of the city. It needs to be addressed,” he said.
The current charter requires that the city manager present the budget proposal one week before the council is required to vote on it. “The council should be given more than a week. The budget is complex. It’s 150 pages long and not self-explanatory,” he said. “Give the council members three weeks to review the budget, not one.”
Additionally, the mayor would like to see a change in council voting. Currently, any change to the budget requires a supermajority of 6/8 council members. “One person’s opinion carries more weight than the majority…to me that is wrong,” he said. He hopes to address the charter starting in January.