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Ogdensburg Council has over $382,000 worth of work cut out for it

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OGDENSBURG — The city is eschewing the scalpel in favor of a chain saw.

Faced with a proposed property tax levy jump of 10.6 percent, City Council members are poring through the budget for any eliminations or reductions they can find, vowing not to exceed the state-mandated 2 percent cap on increases.

“The city needs to have fundamental changes over the next couple of years. If it doesn’t, I don’t see how we keep going,” Councilor Daniel E. Skamperle said. “I am personally trying to cut everything that is not absolutely needed right now to avoid raising taxes.”

The council voted Tuesday to set a Dec. 3 public hearing to override the tax cap but, according to some, that hearing will not be necessary.

“We’re having a public hearing to do that, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s in favor of it. I oppose exceeding the tax cap,” Councilor Jennifer L. Stevenson said. “Allowing a public hearing to hear what citizens say is one thing.”

Ms. Stevenson said the tax cap forces municipalities to live within their means.

“People can’t afford it. That’s why we’re capped on a state level,” she said. “People need to know what to plan for, what they can spend. It is just unaffordable for the average taxpayer to raise taxes that much.”

The proposed budget, accepted by the council Tuesday, calls for the property tax levy to increase from $4,459,136 in 2012 to $4,931,106 next year, a gain of $471,970. To stay within the property tax cap, council members will have to trim $382,787 from Ogdensburg’s $19,638,757 proposed budget.

So far, the council is unsure how to proceed.

“I think we can do it and so do other councilors,” Councilor Wayne L. Ashley said. “We have to bite the bullet and we have to downsize.”

Requests for new vehicles are unlikely to survive the cuts.

“It is hard to keep putting off replacing our equipment, but we may have to do that this year,” Councilor William D. Hosmer said.

Mr. Ashley specifically targeted a request by the Department of Public Works.

“I have an itemized list; the DPW is requesting to buy two new dump trucks,” Mr. Ashley said. “I don’t think that is realistic right now.”

Deputy Mayor Michael D. Morley said budget appropriations for outside agencies such as the Ogdensburg Garden Club and Ogdensburg Command Performances might be reduced or eliminated.

“Some people might not get funded,” he said.“I really think we have to look at these people and say, ‘We’ve helped you out for years; now it is time to stand on your own.’”

Also on the block are outlays for the Frederic Remington Art Museum and the Ogdensburg Public Library.

Most council members left open the possibility of cuts in every budget line for every department.

“I can only speak for me, but there is nothing that I will not consider,” Ms. Stevenson said. “I think we need to look at every cut we can make, and little cuts add up to large amounts of money.”

For some, however, city jobs are a lone sacred cow.

“I don’t think we can cut personnel at this point,” Mr. Hosmer said.“I think every department needs to be evaluated and look at possible ways to cut.”

The budget crisis comes at a time when city spending is as lean and City Hall as empty as ever, with several positions lost over the past two years to attrition, leading Mr. Skamperle to push for reworking city departments to save money.

“We need to change the way we do business as a city,” he said. “Reorganizing different departments, maybe even merging some, could be a huge money saver.”

Mr. Skamperle also singled out the Ogdensburg Police Department, which takes a $3.6 million — almost 30 percent — bite out of general fund appropriations.

“We have to consider changes in terms of shift scheduling,” he said. “I know right now we are about to sign a new contract with the police department. Some police departments are going to 12-hour shifts. It shouldn’t be too much to ask the same of ours.”

Though a majority of the council seems to agree that budget cuts are necessary to avoid exceeding the tax cap, agreeing on which cuts to make may be more difficult.

“The difficulty will come when seven heads get together and everybody has different ideas on what to cut,” Mr. Skamperle said.“There will be different ideas in terms of what is important and what isn’t important. That is when the things that I have set aside to cut won’t get passed and we have to make some kind of compromise.”

Mr. Morley acknowledged the need for change.

“It can’t keep getting worse. We can’t keep going like this,” he said.

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