October 30, 2012

As Fight Over Ithaca Budget Continues, Mayor Says Common Council Faces ‘Impossible Choices’

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As Common Council members prepare to finalize the City of Ithaca’s 2013 budget, Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said Tuesday that the council has a difficult task ahead of it.

“This is not a question of [a] good choice versus a bad choice. These are impossible choices,” Myrick said at a public meeting. “You will have to make the impossible choice.”

Though the proposed budget would reduce the number of firefighters by four and the number of police officers by about nine, some Common Council members said that the budget would still make public safety a priority.

Common Council will suggest changes to the budget before it is voted on in November.

Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) said that the council’s “first priority” is to provide public safety and other necessary services to city residents.

“We need to keep the health, safety and welfare of our citizens first and foremost,” Brock said.

Alderperson Graham Kerslick (D-4th Ward) echoed Brock’s sentiments. Although the city is looking to expand its tax base to help fund the 42 percent of the city’s budget that is currently spent on public safety, the costs of safety services are growing, Kerslick said.

“[Public safety] is definitely one of my top priorities,” Kerslick said. “It’s just more and more expensive to provide these public services.”

To increase the city’s revenues without increasing residents’ property taxes, Common Council is looking to attract businesses to downtown Ithaca, which Brock said would create sources of tax revenue.

“We cannot cut our way out. We have to grow our way out,” Brock said.

Despite city officials’ defenses, members of IPD and IFD voiced their opposition to the cuts, arguing that they would jeopardize the departments’ safety.

IPD faces a “staffing crisis,” Deputy Chief Pete Tyler said.

Especially in the wake of the shooting of IPD Officer Anthony Augustine on Oct. 11, the city must address the department’s staffing shortages, Tyler said.

“It doesn’t look like it’s getting better in terms of crime,” he said. “We really need to think about what we want to do in the really near future about the staff.”

Augustine’s wife also spoke at the meeting, saying that she hopes the Common Council will consider saving some of the IPD positions slated to be cut in the budget.

“For all the people that saved my husband’s life that night, it’s priceless,” she said, referring to the assistance each officer lends to the department.

According to Deputy Chief John Barber, IPD received 21,391 calls requesting assistance last year. With that volume of calls, Barber said that the IPD needs to have at least four more officers on staff to adequately respond to residents.

“You don’t want your police department to become a reactive department. We are [a] reactive and proactive department,” Barber said.

IPD officer Kevin Slattery echoed Barber’s sentiments, saying that IPD is operating at its “bare minimum.” Cutting staff from the police department would  “[place] the burden on those who are already overburdened,” he said.

“While we’re crunching numbers, we’re forgetting one of the most important parts of the equation: What’s the cost of crime?” Slattery said. “Our work is often misunderstood and unfairly criticized … Now you’re asking us to do more.”

As the demand for its services rises, the IFD would also be jeopardized if Myrick’s budget passes, several firefighters said at the meeting.

Even while the city has grown, the number of firefighters who responding to residents’ calls for assistance has decreased across the years, firefighters said.

Myrick acknowledged the officers’ concerns but defended his budget.

He said that, although he wishes the city could maintain the current staffing levels of IPD and IFD, the Common Council must confront the realities of the city’s budget crisis. With a $3-million deficit, the City of Ithaca cannot postpone painful budget cuts, Myrick said.

Original Author: Caroline Flax