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Compromise helps Watertown Council bring down tax rate increase

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WATERTOWN — City Council members reached an agreement Monday night that should keep the tax rate increase for the 2014-15 budget under 10 percent.

After agreeing on several budget changes and transfers, council members compromised on an approximately $39 million spending plan that would carry a tax rate increase in the 9 percent range. They are expected to adopt the final budget June 2.

Council members agreed to take $600,000 from the fund balance — up from a previously planned amount of $500,000. They also reduced spending by about $400,000.

As a result, the property tax rate would be about $7.969 per $1,000 of assessed value, an increase of about 9 percent. A taxpayer with an average assessed property value of $107,000 would pay about $72 more than this year.

As it stands, the spending plan would increase the tax levy, or amount to be raised by property taxes, to about $8.3 million.

Before budget work sessions began, Ms. Addison released a $39.9 million budget that would have carried a 22.3 percent rate increase. City officials have blamed decreasing sales tax revenues this year for the tough budget that left the city with a $1.1 million deficit.

Despite raising taxes, council members seemed to be satisfied with where they ended up with the budget this year.

“It’s the most difficult budget I’ve been involved in,” Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr. said after suggesting several budget changes during the meeting.

The compromise came after Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso met Friday with City Manager Sharon A. Addison and staff members to discuss how they could get the tax rate lower.

“I’m not happy about raising taxes, but it’s the best compromise we came up with during the past two weeks,” Ms. Macaluso said.

To save $75,000 this year, the council reluctantly agreed to put a moratorium on the city’s popular sidewalk program. It will give Ms. Addison and her staff a year to evaluate the program and see if they can come up with a less expensive way of offering it.

For the past several years, the city has shared the costs with residents for repairs of public sidewalks in front of their properties.

Property owners can pay the city for the work, hire a contractor or do the work themselves. The program has required property owners to pay $5.25 per square foot over a 10-year period if the city completes the work. The city annually chooses high-traffic neighborhoods, or districts, where decrepit sidewalks hinder pedestrian travel.

Council members also agreed to cut $84,000 from the workers’ compensation reserve account. They also agreed to keep Sunday hours for the Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library, a pet project that council members established last year. It will cost the city $33,321 for library staff to work on Sundays during the year.

Members also agreed to make the following cuts: $38,000 for a fire department command vehicle; $30,000 for acquired property demolition costs; $21,500 in legal fees, $9,915 for a central printing copier and $25,000 in contingency for Black River shoreline repairs.

Council members again declined to commit to spending $550,000 to replace a 1986 fire engine pump truck. They said it might be better to wait until a fire department assessment study is completed.

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