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State tax cap procedures will delay Watertown budget adoption

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WATERTOWN — Passing a proposed $39 million Watertown budget will have to wait until later this month because city officials forgot to schedule a public hearing on overriding the limit of the state’s tax cap.

The Watertown City Council is expected Monday to set the public hearing for 7:30 p.m. June 16 on overriding the 2 percent tax cap. Typically, council members adopt the budget at the end of May or during the first meeting in June.

But city officials never bothered to schedule the public hearing, which threw off the budget’s timing. “It’s obviously going to back us up,” said Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham. “We haven’t done this before.”

City Comptroller James E. Mills said council members could have considered the budget Monday. But he thought it was more important to follow the tax cap law. “We wanted to do this right,” he said.

Ever since the tax cap law went into effect three years ago, the city has managed to keep the tax levy under the limit. But it’s been a difficult budget process after decreasing sales tax revenues left the city with a $1.1 million deficit.

As it stands, the spending plan would increase the tax levy, or amount to be raised by property taxes, to about $8.3 million, which represents an increase of $781,896 or 10.4 percent.

On May 19, council members agreed to keep the 2014-15 budget’s tax rate increase to about 9 percent. They agreed to take $600,000 from the fund balance — up from a previously planned $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.

Before budget work sessions began, Ms. Addison released a $39.9 million budget that would have carried a 22.3 percent rate increase. She instructed managers to propose 10 percent departmental budget reductions.

The budget compromise came after Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso met with City Manager Sharon A. Addison and staff members to discuss how to lower the tax rate. At the last council meeting, members agreed informally to make a series of cuts.

To save $75,000 this year, the council reluctantly 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 try to devise a less expensive way of offering it. For several years, the city has shared costs with residents for repairs of public sidewalks in front of their properties.

Council members also decided to cut $84,000 from the workers’ compensation reserve account. They chose 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.

They also may spend $56,000 for a consultant to study the Fire Department’s needs.

Council members meet at 7 p.m. Monday in the third-floor council chambers of City Hall, 245 Washington St.

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