By Denise Richardson
The Daily Star
---- — ONEONTA — A majority of Common Council members voiced support Tuesday night for keeping one of two vacant police positions in next year’s budget.
Members expressed their views after a public hearing on the proposed budget at City Hall. About 15 public safety employees, mostly police officers with some firefighters, attended the hearing to back Police Chief Dennis Nayor.
The group stood as Sgt. Chris Witzenburg made a statement supporting the chief, saying that the two positions should remain in the budget until a recently formed task force has studied staffing and other department matters. The elimination of the two posts “is scary’’ in part because the department is “young,’’ he said, and reduced staff numbers pose challenges in times of attrition.
Mayor Dick Miller reminded police that two positions have been vacant for more than a year. The budget is a fluid document, he said, which can be changed to accommodate additional positions if the council chooses.
Witzenburg and several council members complimented Nayor’s memorandum this week to city Manager Michael Long on the long-term impact of the pending cuts and other police issues.
Council members withheld making any changes to the budget until Tuesday, when a plan must be approved as presented or amended. Miller said an amendment requires approval by a super-majority of the council, or six members.
The proposed general fund budget is $14.87 million, up $84,772, or 0.57 percent, from the $14.78 million budget for this year.
The proposed general fund budget has a deficit of $457,000, down from a preliminary projection of $959,442. To reach the reduced projected deficit for 2013, Miller proposed interventions to boost revenues, such as $20,000 in recreation fees for residents outside the city and town of Oneonta, and to cut expenses, such as cutting two vacant police officer positions to save $150,000.
The budget proposal carries a tax levy of $4.4 million, which is up 2 percent and within the state-mandated cap.
City Finance Director Meg Hungerford said the tax rate is $14.09 per $1,000 of assessed value, which is up about 34 cents, or 2.5 percent, because of a decrease in taxable assessments. A homeowner with a property assessed at $80,000 would see an increase in city taxes next year of about $27, she said.
Council members Maureen Hennessy of the First Ward, Larry Malone of the Second Ward, David Rissberger of the Third Ward, Russ Southard of the Sixth Ward and Bob Brzozowski of the Seventh Ward said they supported, with varied reasoning, keeping one of the two police officer positions in the budget. Madolyn Palmer, council member for the Fifth Ward, was absent.
Chip Holmes of the Eighth Ward said council support was sufficient for maintaining one police position. However, given the city’s fiscal constraints, he suggested holding off on filling any vacancies until the task force study is complete.
Fourth Ward council member Michael Lynch said he stood by his previously presented amendment to maintain the two positions. Keeping two positions is easier than keeping one and trying to restore one later, he said.
After the meeting, Nayor said that as a matter of public safety he remained an advocate of maintaining the two positions in question.
Nayor told council members that 28 has been an established authorization for decades, but that number isn’t sufficient to provide the layers needed for staff supervision and coverage.
During the meeting, Malone said he supports the task force and wants it to define a “fully staffed Oneonta Police Department.’’