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Ogdensburg raids funds to reduce tax levy increase, passes budget

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OGDENSBURG — The City Council reduced a proposed 10.6 percent 2013 tax levy increase using some controversial methods.

By making a series of cuts and diverting money from other city funds, Ogdensburg will increase its tax levy next year to $4,604,457 from a 2012 level of $4,459,136, a $145,321 or 3.3 percent increase. The city’s tax rate will increase by 53 cents, from $16.21 per $1,000 of assessed value to $16.74, a 3.3 percent increase.

Cuts in proposed spending made up $129,644 of the savings. General fund expenditures will increase from $19,040,650 this year to $19,554,113 in 2013. The city also raised its estimated sales tax receipts by $35,000, anticipating an increase in the flow of Canadian shoppers.

The rest of the reduction in the proposed tax levy hike came from taking $100,000 out of the water fund and $25,000 from the fund balance that totals $2.75 million, City Comptroller Philip A. Cosmo said.

However, Ogdensburg’s proposed budget indicated 7.1 percent of the general fund expenditures would be paid for through the fund balance. That means $853,155.83 out of a $12,016,273 general fund budget would come from the fund balance. That is before the $25,000 was tacked on by the council to lower the tax rate.

Mr. Cosmo said the council was robbing Peter, the city’s fund balance, to pay Paul and keep the tax rate low.

“You’re going in the wrong direction. You either have to cut your services meaningfully or raise the tax levy to reflect the services you’re providing,” he said. “What you’re doing is unrealistic. I think you’re shooting yourselves in the foot.”

Mr. Cosmo said that eventually either services would have to be cut or taxes raised to reflect the spending.

Councilor William D. Hosmer agreed.

“I don’t think we should take out of our fund balance,” he said. “I think it is short-sighted. We shouldn’t deplete it.”

The fund balance is created when expenses are lower or revenues higher than was budgeted. The money enters into an account that is used for day-to-day cash flow throughout the year. Because Ogdensburg has used the fund balance in the past, Mr. Cosmo said, he has had to borrow money in recent years to maintain cash flow.

“If you want to keep taxes any lower, you have to cut services, and no one on this council is willing to do that,” he said. “You’re talking about changing your programs; you’re talking about people and cutting positions.”

The police and fire departments had their budget increases cut, with the council opting to delay filling three openings on the police force through the beginning of May, creating a $45,000 saving. The council also considered leaving a firefighter position vacant in 2013, but Councilor R. Storm Cilley had reservations about the understaffing. “I have some concerns with the police and fire departments not replacing people,” he said. “We may leave ourselves vulnerable.”

In lieu of a position, the council cut $18,000 of the Fire Department’s budget for equipment and training.

Expenditures for sidewalks, streetlights and other public safety elements were cut by $20,000.

Economic development and cultural activities were cut. The council cut funding for parades and celebrations from $10,000 to $9,000. The Greater Ogdensburg Chamber of Commerce, the Ogdensburg Garden Club, Forsyth’s Rifles and FISHCAP also saw their funding reduced.

The council cut $13,000 from the Ogdensburg Public Library and the Frederic Remington Art Museum.

“We value everybody,” Mayor William D. Nelson said. “The difficult task is to balance what the community needs and what the taxpayers can afford.”

Mr. Nelson said the city’s expenditures on state-mandated retirement and health care costs could increase by an additional 12 to 13 percent next year, so if new revenue streams are not found, city staff and services would be cut.

“By offsetting the tax rate with our fund balance, we’re just digging the hole deeper for next year,” he said. “We’ve got fixed base expenses. You either have to cut your fixed expense or you have to find revenue.”

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