November 7, 2012

Despite Officers’ Warnings, Ithaca Approves Budget

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Despite prolonged opposition from emergency responders, the Ithaca Common Council approved an amended version of Mayor Svante Myrick’s ’09 budget Wednesday, closing the city’s $3 million deficit through a mixture of spending cuts and revenue increases.

The budget, passed by an 8 to 2 vote, had met opposition from members of the Ithaca Police Department, who decried a reduction to the size of its staff. The chair of the budget process and the Common Council member of Ithaca’s First Ward — where two recent high-profile shootings in Ithaca have recently occurred — also questioned the decision to reduce the city’s police force, and voted against the budget.

The budget will cut about 22 city positions, including about eight police officers, and consolidate two city departments. It also raises property taxes in the city, but at the smallest rate in 13 years, according to the mayor.

The city’s financial difficulties caused many of those at the meeting to suggest an increased contribution from Cornell to the city budget as a solution.

“All signs are pointing at Cornell,” Alderperson Seph Murtagh Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward) said. “Their contribution should be increased. If you compare Cornell to other universities of their size and stature, you’ll see that [those other universities] are paying more. We can’t find a way to pay for these departments, and we’re going to see the same problem for years into the future.”

While recognizing it as a “very painful budget,” Myrick, however, has said his plan is a necessary effort to head off the city’s “fiscal crisis.”At Wednesday’s meeting, the chair of the budget process, Alderperson J.R. Clairborne (D-2nd Ward), described the budget as one where “we’re making decisions between bad and worse.”

Despite the difficult circumstances, Myrick said, his budget will close a $3 million deficit with minimal reliance on city reserves. Additionally, it reduces staff through retirements rather than firings — a point Myrick made at the meeting.

Still, speakers at the public hearing on the budget criticized the reduction in police staff in light of violence in the city. Fay Gougakis, a city resident, said some crimes have increased this year.

“Drugs proliferate by the minute, we have people coming in with guns selling drugs. People are afraid,” Gougakis said. “When you have constituents starting to call in, the council and mayor need to be concerned.”

Gougakis also pointed to Cornell as a solution to the city’s financial woes, pointing to record numbers of alumni donations this year.

Clairborne, who proposed an eventually rejected motion to add another officer to the IPD, emphasized the need to have a well-staffed police department. He described the present staffing situation of the department as “disconcerting.”

“We basically have a department that goes out for the night with its fingers crossed, hoping that all is well,” Clairborne said. He pointed to the expansion of the city and a corresponding increase in calls to the police department, saying that the city was asking the department to “do way more with much less.”

Common Council member Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward), who voted against the budget, called the proposal “bold in the depth and breadth of its cuts.” She said that although she supported the budget’s goals she did not endorse the means it used to achieve those goals.

She said that cuts in staff would result in losses of productivity and morale, that the merging of departments needed to be considered more thoughtfully and that the cuts to the police and fire departments would hurt both the departments and Ithaca residents’ quality of life.

Despite the opposition of Clairborne and Brock, the budget passed. Myrick described it as “remarkable,” particularly noting the tax levy and that it closed a $3 million dollar deficit.

Another provision in the budget will result in the consolidation of the Office of the City Chamberlain into the Office of the City Controller, and the consolidation of the Building Department into the Department of Planning and Development.

Original Author: Emma Court