By JOE LoTEMPLIO
---- — PLATTSBURGH — City of Plattsburgh councilors will vote Thursday night on the 2013 budget, which features a 5.2 percent tax-levy hike that in large part will fund retroactive firefighter pay.
That’s 3.3 percent more than the 1.9 percent that Mayor Donald Kasprzak proposed in his own budget plan, which was presented to the Common Council last Oct. 1.
Mayor Pro Tem and Budget Officer James Calnon said the bulk of the increase stems from a contract settlement the city must pay to city firefighters. Late last year — after the mayor presented his own plan — an arbitrator awarded raises of 2.9 and 3 percent in retroactive pay for, respectively, 2008 and 2009.
The award amounts to more than $600,000, with $285,700 of it in the 2013 budget. Overall, the city’s tax levy will be up $303,508 for 2013, with the 5.2 percent rise the maximum allowed under the state tax cap.
“About 94 percent of the tax-levy increase is because of this arbitration award,” Calnon said.
“I don’t understand how an arbitrator can give out raises that are about double what the tax cap lets us raise in revenue.”
Plattsburgh Permanent Firemen’s Association President Terry Feazelle said it was the city that chose to go to arbitration.
“What we offered would have been better for the city than what the arbitrator awarded, but the city turned us down,” he said.
“It’s not our fault.”
The State of New York Public Employment Relations Board opinion and award states, in part: “Although there are some exceptions, Plattsburgh firefighters, at all ranks and longevity steps, earn far less than their counterparts in the cities identified by both parties as comparables; and, as the (Plattsburgh Firemen’s) Association argues, they are seriously underpaid in comparison to the city’s police force.
“The 5 percent increases the association seeks would not close these gaps, but given the chair’s finding that the city is in relatively healthy financial condition, an increase that would make firefighter salaries somewhat more competitive is in order.”
Calnon said he is not blaming the union.
“It’s not anybody’s fault, but it is a fact that more than 90 percent of the tax-levy increase is because of this arbitration award,” he said.
The $53 million budget also includes increases in garbage-collection and water rates, as added by the council.
Garbage pickup would go up about 50 cents per week, Calnon said, and the fee for water infrastructure investment would increase about 70 cents per month.
Some fees in the City Clerk’s Office would also see a small rise, among them $5 more for a taxicab license.
The proposed tax rate would go from $10.41 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $10.76.
With assessments increasing about 2 percent on average this year, the owner of a house whose assessment went from $125,000 to $127,000 would pay about $65 more in taxes for 2013 if the budget is approved.
“Certainly, no one likes tax increases, but I think we have done a pretty good job of managing the things we can control,” Calnon said.
“The arbitration award was a killer, but it is something we have to deal with.”
$60,000 TO LIBRARY
In addition to the arbitration award, the city has been hit with large bills from the state for the Employee Retirement System in recent years, and health-care-premium costs for workers also have been rising.
The retirement obligation for the city in 2013 is about $3.5 million. In 2009, it was $1.2 million.
Health-care premiums are up about $400,000 for 2013.
The council, which has been holding budget sessions since late October, would use about $2.275 million of the city’s fund balance to offset taxes. Kasprzak had recommended using about $2.4 million.
There would still be about $1.7 million left in the fund balance, which is within recommendations of the State Comptroller’s Office.
The council also dropped the contingency fund from $250,000 to $100,000.
“We haven’t hardly spent any of the contingency money and probably won’t again, so we thought we would lower it,” Calnon said.
The council added $60,000 to the Plattsburgh City Library budget, which has been struggling in recent years.
Councilors also agreed to leave $515,000 in the retirement fund in anticipation that the city will get hit again with a large bill from the state in 2014.
There are no layoffs or service cuts in the 2013 budget, but Calnon warned that next year could be different.
“Just about every municipality in the state is dealing with pretty much the same issues we are, and when you have a cap in revenue, it gets really hard,” he said.
“We had a 35 percent tax increase here a number of years ago (2005), and we certainly don’t want to ever return to those days, but you can’t go on like this forever.”
The council meets at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall; session are open to the public.
Email Joe LoTemplio: firstname.lastname@example.org