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City Council candidates weigh in on the budget

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The financial stability of the city of Watertown recently was praised by state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, but challenges lie ahead — challenges that two of the six candidates running for City Council this year will have to negotiate after the political dust settles in November.

Concerns about public safety, economic development, public services, distressed rental properties, pension and health benefits, a rising cost of living and inflation all loom at a time when the country’s economy is still in recovery, people are struggling to find work and once proud manufacturing meccas are declaring bankruptcy.

According to the comptroller’s report, more than 18 percent of families in the city of Watertown are living in poverty, compared with 15 percent for all cities. The city’s unemployment rate of 9.2 percent is higher than the statewide 8.5 percent. And the median household income is a full $19,000 lower than the statewide median.

People are suffering, as one candidate said. They’re doing the best they can.

There is no doubt some tough decisions will have to be made, and venerated institutions no longer are safe from the chopping block.

One of the most controversial issues is the size of the Police and Fire departments, which together account for more than 38 percent of the city’s overall budget.

While candidates said that they were not in favor of indiscriminately cutting the size of these departments, more than one said they deserved a hard look.

Jeffrey M. Smith, an incumbent running on a low-tax platform, said staffing levels in all departments need to be continuously evaluated, especially at the three most personnel-heavy departments: Police, Fire and Public Works.

“If I was worried about my own political skin, I wouldn’t be talking about staffing levels at the Police Department and Fire Department,” Mr. Smith said. “What is the need today? There’s a cost involved in that.”

As demands on the city’s revenue stream continue to increase, Mr. Smith said, council members and residents face a tough choice: People want to see taxes cut, but “if you cut taxes, then you have to cut services. What are you going to cut?”

If the size of any department is reduced, it is likely to be done through attrition, or not filling positions left vacant as employees retire.

Mr. Smith pointed to two vacant positions in the Fire Department that were eliminated during this year’s budget cycle.

“In the city budget, the savings are personnel. If there’s going to be cuts, it’s going to be staffing cuts,” Mr. Smith said.

Before it reaches that level, Mr. Smith said, he would be more in favor of seeking alternate means to generate revenue and keep the tax rate down, such as what the city did with the effort to overhaul its wastewater treatment plant by turning sludge into methane gas.

The measure will save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy costs, Mr. Smith said.

Jasmine W. Borreggine, one of four challengers to the incumbents, also is in favor of cutting staff through attrition where possible. Tax savings are where she’s aiming.

She said she thinks the city’s residents are being taxed too much. “To have our taxes go up this year ... we’re being nickeled and dimed,” she said.

To remedy that, Mrs. Borreggine is in favor of instituting nominal fees to use some public venues, such as the city’s pools.

A fee of just $2 will help cover the cost of running the pools and ease the demand on those services during the summer months, when so many people come from outside the city to use the pools that it’s hard to find room to enjoy them, Mrs. Borreggine said.

“This is the only city I’ve lived in where there is no fee for the pool,” she said.

Mrs. Borreggine said she would not be in favor of increasing the size of the Police Department to fight a growing drug problem that some residents perceive in the city.

That would be “treating the symptoms, not the cause,” Mrs. Borreggine said.

Instead, she wants to see lower taxes to encourage people to move to Watertown.

“We have to remain competitive. It concerns me that we’re moving in the opposite direction with a tax increase this year,” she said.

On May 20, the City Council unanimously adopted a budget that carried a 2 percent tax levy increase and a 1.2 percent tax increase that raised the rate less than a penny to $7.29 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Mr. Smith defended the increase, saying that the tax rate is still lower that it was in 2006, shortly after he took office for the second time.

In 2006, the tax rate dropped to $9.82 per $1,000 of assessed value from $14.38 per $1,000 in 2005-06, though the 31 percent decrease is largely attributable to a citywide revaluation of property that increased property values by 34 percent, or from approximately $622 million to $833 million.

Teresa R. Macaluso was elected to the City Council in 2009 and is the second incumbent in the six-person race.

She said she was not in favor of a nominal fee for using city pools.

It’s not fair to be “taking money from people who can barely afford their mortgages to pay for these things,” Ms. Macaluso said. “This is a deprived area. There are a lot of people just barely making it.”

She also said that she was not in favor of reducing the size of the Police or Fire departments.

“I’m skeptical about cutting services and putting people out of work in an economy that doesn’t support jobs very well,” she said. “We don’t need 10 or 15 firemen out of work.”

Instead, Ms. Macaluso said, the city should prioritize the work that needs to be done.

If taxes need to be raised, it should be by only a percentage point so that people can handle it.

“I spend the city’s money like I spend my own money,” Ms. Macaluso said.

Rodney J. LaFave, another challenger, said public safety and making sure the city’s Police and Fire departments are adequately funded is one of his main concerns.

“We don’t need to be cutting the Fire Department and the Police Department,” Mr. LaFave said.

State and federal public safety grants will help cover the departments’ needs, he said.

To increase the tax base and the attractiveness of the city to potential residents and businesses, Mr. LaFave said, he is in favor of instituting a rental inspection program that would address the problem of absentee landlords who let their properties fall into disrepair and lower the value of neighboring homes.

“People shouldn’t have to live next door to rundown properties,” he said.

Under his proposal, owners of all multifamily homes would be obligated to register their properties with the city clerk for a “very minimal registration fee,” and the homes then would be subjected to periodic inspections.

Mr. LaFave said the program could be self-funded through registration and inspection fees.

The No. 1 concern people have throughout the city is the value of their property, Mr. LaFave said. Inattentive and absentee landlords make the entire city look bad.

“It wouldn’t affect the people living in these apartments other than improve living conditions for everyone, renters and homeowners,” Mr. LaFave said.

Stephen A. Jennings, a challenger, said that while pension and health benefits are one of the biggest expenses in municipal budgets, he would not be in favor of cutting staff at the Police and Fire departments.

“My sense is that they are not inflated. Can efficiencies be gained in those lines of work? Certainly. Every line and every department has to be examined routinely,” Mr. Jennings said.

Mr. Jennings, Jefferson County’s public health planner and public information officer, said that the county’s Public Health agency has “become very lean” while maintaining its mission by not hiring new employees as others retire.

To raise revenue, Mr. Jennings said, he would push the city to develop the region’s high-capacity fiber-optic cable network to attract entrepreneurs and startups to locate in the city, contributing to a revitalization of the downtown area by capitalizing on the renovations made to Public Square and the proposed redevelopment of the former Mercy Hospital site.

Challenger Cody J. Horbacz said he would like to see the city increase revenue without cutting services by making Watertown a “place of entertainment” and encouraging promoters to bring performing acts downtown.

Mr. Horbacz said that the Police and Fire departments are adequately sized and funded and that he didn’t want to see any cuts there.

He also said he would be in favor of using some city funds, along with state and federal grants, to help improve properties around the city.

“Spending a little will pay for itself by raising property values,” Mr. Horbacz said.

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