SI Advance - February 03, 2012by Judy L. Randall
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Proceed with caution.
Staten Island City Council members gave cheers and jeers to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's preliminary $68.7 billion budget plan for Fiscal 2013 yesterday, with no increase in taxes and no layoffs of teachers or uniformed workers, while maintaining long-term investments and reducing the city payroll by a modest 20,000 workers, mainly through attrition.
Yet it leaves open possible cuts to firehouses, libraries, cultural institutions and after-school programs, "exposing them to the proverbial budget dance once again," said Councilwoman Debi Rose.
"The Council needs to stand strong to once again protect [them]," added Councilman Vincent Ignizio, " ... while at the same time keeping taxes from going up. I will fight against the mayor's proposed cuts to the Beacon program at Tottenville High School and after-school programs throughout the city."
Still, Ignizio and Councilman James Oddo said they anticipate a less contentious budget process than in previous years, with Oddo saying his "gut" tells him firehouses here will not be on the chopping block.
But the Uniformed Firefighters Association isn't about to leave anything to chance, with UFA president Stephen Cassidy saying, "On the heels of the 10 busiest years in the history of the FDNY, both the mayor and City Council have to know that closing firehouses will compromise the public and firefighter safety. We strongly recommend they don't do it."
Said Oddo (R-Mid-Island/Brooklyn): "Relative to budgets in previous years, I believe this will be an easier one with less rancor."
Added Ignizio (R-South Shore): "This is shaping up to be a much less contentious budget than we anticipated. But this is just the beginning of a long budget process."
The Council will hold budget hearings in the coming weeks, with Bloomberg submitting a revamped budget plan in May for a Council vote in advance of July 1, when Fiscal 2013 kicks in.
During his preliminary budget unveiling in City Hall, Bloomberg called it a "responsible budget that continues to make responsible spending cuts while protecting the core services and investments that have helped our city to weather the national recession better than most other places."
But Oddo termed a "huge red flag" the city's increased revenue projections from property taxes -- from $17.8 billion next year to $20.3 billion in Fiscal Year 2016 -- the result of increased assessments.
"Next year's [property tax] bill might be ugly," Oddo posted on his City Council Facebook page, noting the Council has no say in the matter and calling the "property tax formula in NYC and NYS a convoluted mess."
Oddo also thumped the Bloomberg administration's inability to get fringe benefit give-backs and health care benefit reductions during municipal contract negotiations early in the mayor's time in office, along with reductions in Medicaid and debt service, saying the "long-term" negative impact will be felt far into the future.
Meanwhile, Oddo and Borough President James Molinaro sought to highlight the importance of pension reform for future city workers, saying the current benefits packages are "unsustainable" in the long term -- an echo of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Tier 6 pension plan, also spotlighted by the mayor.
"The City of New York has gone from about $1 billion in pension costs in 2002 to an estimated $8 billion this upcoming year," Molinaro said. "We can't support this rate of growth. ... No reasonable person can look at the current numbers and not see that there is a big problem here."
Said Ms. Rose (D-North Shore): "While the mayor's budget touts the results of several years of prudence and no new tax increases, which will be greeted by a collective sigh of relief from New York City residents, we must not be lulled into a false sense of relief. ... It is of great concern to me that the city is reliant upon fees and fines to generate revenue to fill budgetary gaps, as demonstrated by the recent proliferation of fines levied against restaurant and bar owners. The excessive meting out of fines and fees amounts to unfair taxation and negates the mayor's pronouncement of no tax increases."