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Oswego lawmakers face decision on property tax rate hike

A view of downtown Oswego from the Oswego River's east bank.

Although Oswego's residents are facing a nearly 82 percent increase in their property taxes, the city's lawmakers say there isn't much fat left to cut from the proposed budget. They say the changing economic atmosphere in the city is weighing heavily on this year's budget.

Mayor Thomas Gillen says the $34 million budget is $4.4 million more than last year, and is partially the result of lower assessments on taxable properties and rising mandated retirement and health care costs. Upcoming negotiations with NRG Energy, National Grid and the Metropolitan Water Board also have the potential to hurt the city's future revenue streams.

The mayor says there isn't much else left to do though, and outside of cutting essential departments like police, fire and public works, something had to give.

"It's not the time to tell people that," Gillen said. "They don't want to hear it. Everything else is going up, they're getting beaten right and left, and it's frustrating. But you have to put things in perspective. The price of gasoline goes up, your cable bill goes up, the price of a modest meal for your family at a restaurant goes up. You pay it."

The 81.8 percent property tax hike means the average $70,000 house will be taxed an additional $575 a year. But Gillen says it's a small price to pay for what Oswego's residents get in return.

"If you have a $70,000 home, you're paying say $1,200 a year in taxes," Gillen said. "That's $100 a month. What do you get for your $100? I would argue the police department, fire department, you get a DPW that plows your streets, cleans them, fixes your neighbor's, maintains your parks. We offer free festivals, free downtown parking. We offer an awful lot."

Gillen says fire, police and public works departments constitute more than 90 percent of a homeowner's tax rate, but offer residents a higher quality of life and more safety.

The proposed budget does highlight positive trends in the city, including Oswego's compliance with an Environmental Protection Agency consent decree, which is keeping water and sewer costs the same. There is also a four percent increase in sales tax revenue compared to last year, along with expansions at Novelis, the Port of Oswego and at SUNY Oswego.

A public meeting about the proposed budget will be held December 19 at Oswego Middle School. Meetings with individual department heads are being held leading up to the event.