October 9, 2002

Cohen '81 Announces City Budget Cutbacks

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Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 introduced his budget proposal for the 2003 fiscal year to the Ithaca Common Council at the first of five budget meetings yesterday, marking the eleventh consecutive year that the city’s budget has had to be reduced.

“The budget that I have presented this year is the budget I never wanted to have to submit,” Cohen said. “It contains everything I deplore: a high tax increase, layoffs, use of stopgap financing, use of bonding to cover general fund expenses that should be paid for with cash, a reduction in services and a reduction in funding to important community agencies. I felt I had no choice but to submit a budget that reflects the reality of today and the immediately known future.”

Cohen read this statement in the meeting, in which he and Controller Steven Thayer presented the mayor’s budget proposal in the face of tough economic times. Cohen said repeatedly that he was “unhappy” at the measures he was required to take, but that such action was critical to balance the city’s budget and to build the fund balance. Included in the proposal were many staff and program cuts as well as a 5-percent increase in the local property tax.

Both Cohen and Thayer also warned that Ithaca is in danger, with the rest of the state, of losing its $1.59 million in state aid.

A controversial measure was the budget’s proposed cutting of two police officers and three positions at the fire department, including two firefighters. Despite the cuts, Cohen said that he believed the fire department would still be able to provide the same level of service because “there is rarely a day that all of the firefighters have to work. Usually only five or six in a platoon of roughly 12 will be on duty at any given time.”

Fire Chief Brian H. Wilbur disagreed.

“Because these cuts have just been proposed, we haven’t yet evaluated which steps we will take to deal with possible staff cuts,” he said.

In response to whether he thought the cuts would affect the department’s ability to provide service, Wilbur answered, “Yes, that’s why we will have to plead our case when our turn comes.” He added that if the cuts do occur, the department will have to consider taking an engine company out of service or reducing fire prevention to cope with the reduced staff.

“On the issues of layoffs themselves, I clearly recognize the controversy they engender and the impact it has on our workforce,” Cohen said. “With labor costs constituting over 70 percent of our budget, and equipment and supplies cut to the point that it is starting to get difficult for departments to perform their basic functions, we have little choice but to now look for savings in personnel.”

However, layoffs are not the only measures being proposed to save money. The mayor, with the approval of the department heads, eliminated management increases in lieu of more staff cuts. In addition, the police department will only receive two new patrol vehicles rather than the usual four.

The mayor’s proposed budget calls for dramatic cuts in many departments and the elimination of funding for 25 positions, some of which are currently vacant and others that will require layoffs. In addition, many positions have been restructured in order to save expenses.

The Department of Works suffered the most dramatic cuts in Cohen’s proposed budget, with nine positions either being dropped or altered, meaning a loss of 14 percent of the department’s workforce.

“Public works will suffer the most. It is going to take us longer to patch up potholes and there will be less painting our bridges and other such maintenance,” he said.

The city’s department of bridge maintenance was another casualty of the budget, being cut entirely because most bridges in the city have either been recently refurbished or are scheduled to be repaired through outside funding. Bridge repair will be handled by other departments as needed.

“This coming year, instead of the old adage of doing more with less, we will be doing less with less,” Cohen said.

“I really questioned our people very hard to make sure that we didn’t fund anything unnecessary,” Cohen said.

Another area to suffer heavily was the city’s support of community services, which was eliminated entirely from the budget. Council member David Whitmore ’96 expressed his concern with the proposed elimination of funding from the city.

“The level of cuts are horrific, especially to community services. I am a big advocate of the arts, and zeroing out the arts, especially at a time when we are trying to encourage tourism, will just eliminate many dollars that could be brought in if art and culture were supported.”

Council member Peter Mack ’03 agreed that the cuts were extremely harmful, but he hoped that “in light of such drastic budget action student spirits would grow, and they would become more involved, as I have seen recently with many students in our community.” Mack added that he was “disappointed that some of the recent cuts have a direct causal link with revenue, such as the budget and development departments, which would generate revenue in the coming years by encouraging growth. Eliminating them is a kind of catch-22.”

Despite the mounting financial problems, the city’s taxable property value rose $24 million to $864 million. Projected sales tax figures for the coming year are also up nearly a million dollars to $8,562,823.

Asked if he saw any other possible method besides the proposed cuts to balance the budget, Cohen said, “No, or else they would be included. We have included a 5-percent tax increase, but the county is proposing a 20-percent increase. This coming year and the fiscal year 2004 will be tough, but by 2005 things will be fine.”

Archived article by Gautham Nagesh