After a three-hour special meeting Sunday, Nov. 20 that drew so many residents some were left standing outside, the Cicero Town Board approved an eleventh-hour compromise 2012 budget that calls for a 0.9 percent tax increase – $14 per $100,000 of assessed value. The budget had to be submitted to the state by 11:59 p.m. Sunday.
The budget was approved after a contentious meeting in which several members of the audience accused board members of behaving like “high school children” for failing to come to a better solution sooner and forcing the last-minute session, which often devolved into bickering and sniping between board members.
Supervisor Judy Boyke presented an amended proposal that cut the tax rate from 2.75 percent, which she had proposed Wednesday, Nov. 16, to 0.65 after taking more money from one of the town’s rarely-used fund balances, or $2.88 per $100,000 of assessed value. That brought the total Boyke wanted to take from the fund balance to $1,066,942. The budget also called for cuts from the highway, parks and recreation and police departments.
Councilor Jim Corl, meanwhile, had a different budget to present.
“Everybody should know that since Wednesday’s meeting, myself, Ms. [Jessica] Zambrano and Mr. [Vern] Conway have worked very diligently on a budget that’s reasonable for the long-term planning and goals for this town, that’s not just raiding a fund balance and applying it to reduce a tax rate,” Corl said. “We have a proposal that makes the tough decisions.”
Corl’s proposal called for the following:
A 2 percent increase in salary for the town’s 15 non-union employees (the budget Boyke presented Wednesday called for a 3 percent increase).
Elimination of a code enforcement officer position.
Elimination of a park laborer position.
Elimination of the director of planning and development.
Elimination of one highway employee salary (two retirements are proposed in the department).
Reduction of the salt budget in the highway department by $50,000.
Reduction of the drainage budget by $200,000.
Reduction of the stipend paid to town historian Thomas Mafrici by $1,000.
Reduction of the stipend paid to the town’s Bingo inspector by $137 (Boyke pointed out that the town is required by state law to have a paid Bingo inspector as long as Bingo is allowed within the township).
Removal of the cold patch line item in the highway budget, reducing that budget by $2,750.
Closing the beach at Williams Park.
No raises for any elected officials.
No raises for any department heads.
Reduction of town board members’ salaries by 5 percent.
Reduction of supervisor’s salary by 5 percent.
Corl’s budget, as proposed, called for a 1.75 percent tax increase, or $20 per $100,000 of assessed value.
Corl repeatedly emphasized the need to plan for the future.
“Next year, we will be experiencing a shortage of $600,000 when the county takes away our sales tax revenue,” he said. “We need to be prepared for that now.”
Boyke, meanwhile, asserted that the current economic situation constituted an emergency that necessitated the use of the fund balance.
“I think that it’s reasonable when it’s a fund to use in an emergency, and I feel this is an emergency,” she said.
“Next year, we’re going to be in even more of an emergency,” Corl argued. “When we’re under the 2 percent tax cap by law and we don’t have the sales tax revenue of $600,000, we will be in crisis, we will have to have major layoffs.”
Residents, tired of the bickering, expressed their displeasure with their elected officials over the whole process.
“I’m very disgusted with what I’m seeing here,” said Mark Venesky. “We’re getting to the final hours when we have to submit a budget. To wait until the last minute with no compromise – this should have been done, it should have been handled, it should have been discussed and we should have had a budget on the table. I expect that the right thing for the town of Cicero and these taxpayers will be handled and done today. This is unacceptable. And if I haven’t been paying enough attention, I am now.”
His sentiments were echoed by Ed Fryer.
“You guys have got to get along,” Fryer said. “Whether you’re Democrat, Republican, Independent, whatever, this isn’t high school. We need you guys to sit down this afternoon, whether you like each other or not, and fix this. We elected you to represent us. Beat each other up if you need to, but get us out of the jam we’re in. Let’s move on.”
And it wasn’t just residents who felt that way; even Councilor Lynn Jennings agreed.
“Two of my neighbors came up to me when I was leaving this morning,” Jennings said. “I’m going to quote them. They told me the Cicero board is an embarrassment, and they’re not wrong.”
When it came time to vote on a budget, Corl and Councilor Jessica Zambrano wanted to stick with Corl’s original budget, but Councilor Vern Conway proved to be the swing vote on the issue. Conway voted with Boyke and Jennings against adopting the budget Corl presented. Instead, the board voted unanimously to adopt the compromise budget, though both Zambrano and Corl made it clear that they weren’t happy about it.
“I’d just like to say that we did not all agree on a compromise budget,” Zambrano said. “This is not a compromise budget.”
“I will note that we’ll have some major problems down the road,” Corl said.
The final budget calls for a 0.9 percent tax increase. It does not eliminate any positions, and it does keep the beach at Williams Park open. There will be no raises for department heads or elected officials, and all town board members, including the supervisor, will take a 5 percent pay cut in 2012. It took $900,000 from various town fund balances. Otherwise, the budget combined the other two proposals.
When the board voted to approve the budget, the residents in the audience applauded.
Whether it was because they agreed with the budget or because the process was finally over was uncertain.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.