The Oswego Common Council passed its 2014 budget plan last night, including a more than 40 percent property tax increase. But instead of the boos and anger seen last Thursday night, councilors heard cheers from the hundred or so people who watched the event.
In a seemingly surprise announcement to the crowd just prior to the vote, council president Ron Kaplewicz broke the news about the city's 15 Department of Public Works jobs that were placed on the city's chopping block.
"I'm pleased to say that we sat long and hard," Kaplewicz said. "Kudos to the unions and to Deb Code and Rita Tickle and the mayor, and several of us that spent our weekends, instead of with our families who were visiting, buying Christmas presents, we tried to figure out how to save 15 jobs. And we did."
Among the loudest cheers were from the city's DPW department, who wore purple shirts in support of the union and filled one side of the room. Others in the audience rallied in support of the city's public pool, the need for more revenue streams and for keeping the Codes Enforcement department active.
"We re-worked this budget and we looked at some of the realities of some of the decisions we wanted to make," Kaplewicz said. "The last thing we want to do is do anything that's going to be knee-jerk and end up with unintended consequences because we made decisions that we didn't think through. Have we made some mistakes in the past? Absolutely, we have. If we had to do it all over again, hindsight is a great thing. Whether it's police contracts and the size of that contract, had we known it probably would have been different. Did they deserve it? Absolutely, because we looked at the facts surrounding that decision."
Though the 15 DPW jobs were saved, they come at a cost, as all city employees will have to take a ten day furlough to avoid layoffs. Kaplewicz says it equates to about a four percent decrease city-wide in every department. New positions were cut, as was the city's Codes Enforcement department and the city's part-time tourism director. New positions with Animal Control and the Traffic Department were also removed, as were three full-time and part-time public safety clerks. In all, about 22 positions, including summer youth helpers, were removed from next year's budget.
Jody DelBrocco is the business agent for SEIU-Local 200, the union representing the DPW, Codes and Zoning departments. He says he wants the city and the union to come to a mutual solution to avoid having more people lose their jobs.
"We're open to anything," DelBrocco said. "We understand the crisis, but like I said, that's a term and condition of employment. It's not part of the current collective bargaining agreement that we have with the city, which is good through 2016. So if this council and this mayor want to amend it, they need to come to us and bargain those terms."
The furloughs will have to be negotiated with Oswego's fire and police departments too, since all of the unions have settled contracts through 2016. Kaplewicz says the city will have to renegotiate those contracts or risk layoffs.
But DelBrocco says he sympathizes with the Common Council and wouldn't want to be in their position.
"This council, this mayor, I don't envy any of them," DelBrocco said. "They were put with an almost insurmountable task. Over the weekend, over the last week, they worked hard. It's obvious. The amendments and the amended resolutions they passed tonight, they did revisit this budget and they saw where, I don't want to call them mistakes, but where they could make better choices than the ones they had previously made."
He added that the tax situation is rough for everyone involved.
"I don't want to pay any more taxes, nobody wants to pay anymore taxes," DelBrocco said. "But the realty is in this city we can't afford to not look towards the future."
Layoffs and furloughs weren't the only topics brought up at Monday night's vote. Once again, raises awarded to two council members, specifically the president and vice-president, became a target. Councilor Shawn Walker, who represents the fourth ward, voiced his concerns about the move in the face of such a large tax increase.
"I know these positions put in a lot of time and effort," Walker said. "They're down at City Hall on the phone, etcetera. But when your councilors took these positions, you knew what it entails. So you think before you take this position, you should let everybody know that you're able to do that. And as a leader of the council, I don't know how you could keep these raises when employees' jobs are at stake. You say it's very minimal, but right now pennies count. Every penny counts."
Walker's comments ended to applause from the audience, who had brought up the topic during the Dec. 19 public hearing at Oswego Middle School.
Eric VanBuren also addressed the city's finances, saying the city needs restructuring in order to prevent similar crises from happening in the future.
"The big thing about this budget, and I've said it before, was that we can't keep doing things that we did before," VanBuren said. "They led us to this position, and now we have to change how City Hall does business. A lot of that is going to be shown in the coming months, as we continue to make cuts and amendments to this budget that won't affect this year's tax rate but next year, because of the way they have to go."
VanBuren said the city is preparing to renegotiate its consent decree from the Environmental Protection Agency. Mayor Thomas Gillen has repeatedly said the city is ahead on the consent decree's implementation and there could be room to negotiate.
In the end, the new budget equates to about 14.488 per $1,000 of assessed property value.