ITHACA, N.Y. – At a marathon four-hour meeting Tuesday, the City of Ithaca’s Common Council considered cuts and additions to the 2019 Mayor’s Recommended Budget. Amendments to the budget were generally in line with the original proposal, prioritizing spending on infrastructure. Despite a last-ditch effort by the Ithaca Police Department, Common Council did not pass an amendment to add two police officers.
The Department of Public Works saw the biggest gains, with about $600,000 slated to fund a new water and sewer crew starting April 1. The new positions will be funded from the water and sewer fund, so the item will affect water and sewer fee rates rather than property taxes.
The Police Department, meanwhile, again saw their appeal for additional officers denied. Deputy Chief Vincent Monticello made a final plea to council members to increase staffing, but the amendment to increase police funding failed by 4-6 vote.
City staff and members of the public will have one last chance to weigh in on the proposed 2019 budget at 6 p.m. Nov. 7 in City Hall. Council will be able to make further changes to the budget during the meeting, and, barring any last minute controversies, will vote on a final version.
Here’s a rundown of amendments discussed this week, which can be brought up for debate again on Nov. 7.
New spending on infrastructure, programming
If the 2019 budget passes as amended Tuesday, Ithacans should expect to see more work on roads and sewers in the coming year. The water and sewer crew added to the budget on Tuesday comes in addition to a new streets crew, which was already funded in the proposed budget.
New water and sewer personnel will be paid from the water and sewer fund, meaning water and sewer fees will go up. The exact impact on homeowners hasn’t been calculated yet, but as Common Council considered the measure City Controller Steven Thayer estimated a 34 cent increase in the water rate and no change in the sewer rate.
Council members voted 9-1 to fund the crew, with Stephen Smith opposing. Several voiced support for long-term investments in infrastructure.
“A solid argument to taxpayers is that in the long run, this is going to save us money and improve the quality of our infrastructure in the city,” said George McGonigal.
In addition to DPW funding, Common Council voted to approve requests above the mayor’s budget submitted by the Department of Public Information and Technology; Fire Department; Greater Ithaca Activities Center; The Department of Planning, Building, Zoning and Economic Development; Human Resources Department; and City Court.
The Department of Public Information Technology will add a network integration specialist in April, at a cost of about $50,000. Council members were reluctant to approve the position because of the high cost, initially pushing it off until 2020. They cited the boost to government efficiency, however, as a reason to approve it.
Ducson Nguyen characterized the position as a tool to help the city run better, and Cynthia Brock agreed, stating that with increased IT staff “all of our departments will work more smoothly and efficiently.” The amendment passed narrowly by a 6-4 vote, with Seph Murtagh, Graham Kerslick, Stephen Smith and Rob Gearhart opposed.
The Fire Department is set to get new funding for confined space and technical rescue training, at a cost to the city of $18,000, with only Rob Gearhart opposing.
Council unanimously approved a full-time kitchen manager position for GIAC, at a cost of about $15,000, as well as extending the hours of four city planners, at a cost of about $37,000.
The Human Resources Department will see $25,000 to carry out a new workplace climate survey, with support from seven council members.
$25,000 was added to fund a Mental Health Court coordinator, with a matching contribution expected from the county. Only McGonigal opposed, explaining that while he sees a need for the position he was reluctant to share the cost with the county.
Several departmental requests were not granted, including the Police Department’s appeal for two additional officers. IPD has lobbied the city to increase their staffing throughout the budget season. On Tuesday, Deputy Chief Vincent Monticello made a final pitch. He reiterated that officers are stretched as the city’s population increases and the events calendar grows.
Murtagh said he trusted the leadership of IPD chiefs and urged his colleagues to fund the positions.
“We’re getting to the point where staffing levels are dangerously low for officers on the street,” he said, adding that he would be comfortable increasing the property tax rate to cover the costs of hiring two officers.
Deb Mohlenhoff, Laura Lewis and Nguyen joined Murtagh in support of the increase.
Those who opposed funding new officers cited concerns about long-term planning in the department and unmet promises tied to past funding. Brock said she is sympathetic to the strain on officers but hesitant to approve new positions given that the department still has not implemented a Community Action Team as promised.
Smith worried that adding two officers would come at a significant cost without clear long-term benefits. “Why not ask for time to look into this and develop a more holistic approach?” he asked.
Council members considered compromises, such as setting a mid-year start date for new officers or hiring just one new officer. Even with these modifications, though, the motion did not get sufficient support. The amendment failed 4-6.
Amendments that increased general fund spending were offset by reductions to spending proposed in the mayor’s budget, including eliminating raises for council members and reducing the city’s proposed contributions to TCAD, the History Center and the REACH program.
In total, the amendments passed Tuesday would increase the property tax rate by five cents over the mayor’s proposed budget, alongside the increase to the water rate. These numbers are not final, however. Controller Steven Thayer will make minor adjustments to forecasted sales tax revenue, parking revenue, pension costs and so on in the next week, to reflect any changes since the mayor’s proposed budget was released a month ago. Council will then revisit the budget in its entirety on Nov. 7 before finalizing it.