October 30, 2003

Cohen '81 Presents Budget

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Last night, Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 presented his second amended budget for 2004 to the Common Council. Due to amendments in the Cornell University-City of Ithaca Memorandum of Understanding, as well as a smaller expenditure on health insurance than initially anticipated, property tax will increase 9.36 percent, rather than the 14.11 percent originally proposed.

“I’m not happy the tax increase is as high as it is, but it’s a necessary thing that we have to do this year to balance budgets for future years,” Cohen said.

The latest budget has seen the restoration of almost all of the positions that were originally slated to be cut, such as the currently vacant position of assistant fire chief, or reduced, as was the case for the director of City Planning.

According to Cohen, the newest budget will restore several positions that were cut in previous budget proposals, including the assistant fire chief and maintenance supervisor at Cass Park. The city’s traffic engineer position has been reinstated as a full time position; in previous budgets, it was intended to become a half-time job.

The new budget will also set aside money to bring 12 employees up to living wage standards and address disparities in the salary of the director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, according to Cohen. There will also be money to fund a wind energy initiative.

“We intend to buy a percentage of energy from wind energy sources with the hope that Ithaca will ultimately convert to 100 percent wind energy,” Cohen said.

Common Council members appeared enthusiastic about the revisions made possible by the MOU and lower increases in health insurance.

“I’m very pleased, it looks like we are going to be able to restore a bunch of cuts we were anticipating in the city staff,” Patricia Pryor (D-1st Ward) said prior to last night’s meeting. “I’m pleased to see that with the addition of the Cornell money, that Cornell is going to help next year. Plus, health insurance will not cost as much as was anticipated.”

Carolyn Peterson (D-4th Ward), the Democratic candidate for mayor, was also enthusiastic about the budget changes.

“I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we’re happy to restore cuts that the mayor had proposed, such as the pool and firefighter position, which are important parts of our community,” she said.

She added, however, that she felt that there were some problems with the budget process. “[As mayor], one of my proposals is to have departments assigned to each standing committee,” Peterson said. “That way, we will have half the council well aware of what each department is doing early on in the year.”

The original budget, presented Oct. 2, prior to the MOU’s amendment, saw closing of the swimming pool at Cass Park and the elimination of 17 and a half positions in the work force of the city, including the fire departments, the GIAC and the Department of Public Works, among others.

On Oct. 23, Cohen presented the first amended budget, which included the additional $500,000 from the MOU, and revised the increase in the cost of health insurance to 15 percent; health insurance was originally anticipated to increase 22 percent. These changes have carried over to the most recent budget.

Cohen said that in recent years, it has been “typical for health care costs to skyrocket.”

The budget submitted on Oct. 23 had slated a vacant police officer position and a vacant assistant fire chief position to be eliminated, as well as slating the positions of two retiring city employees to be cut once the positions become vacant. In spite of these positions being cut, there was an 8.37 percent property tax increase, approximately one percent lower than the increase in the current budget.

These budget changes come after the Tompkins County Legislature passed a budget with a tax rate increase of 19.65 percent last Thursday.

“[The County’s tax rate increase] affects all taxpayers, including the city,” Cohen said. “I’m trying to keep our tax rates as low as possible.”

Archived article by David Hillis