LOCKPORT – The Common Council passed a 2013 budget Wednesday that left the tax rate the same as it was this year, but left unsettled the question of the city’s continued participation in the countywide tourism promotion agency.
The $22.5 million budget cuts spending by 3.1 percent, or nearly $722,000, and freezes the property tax rate at $14.73 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The total amount to be collected in taxes is going down by $85,000.
The budget accomplishes this by assuming the city will hit several targets in personnel cost reductions, especially in health insurance and overtime.
The 2013 overtime allocations for the police and fire departments, for example, are $50,000 each. This year the police overtime budget was $275,000, and the fire overtime budget was $360,000.
“If we put the overtime back in, it would be a 5 percent tax increase or thereabouts. Then we’d be accused of not managing the overtime,” Mayor Michael W. Tucker said.
He wouldn’t say what operational changes the city wants to negotiate in the five new union contracts to replace the ones expiring Dec. 31. But it is known that one of the major drivers of Fire Department overtime is a four-platoon system with a minimum manning rule calling for nine firefighters per shift.
When vacations and other time off prevent a platoon from mustering nine men, members of other platoons are called in and paid time and a half for the entire 10- or 14-hour shift. That system is in the union contract.
The cost of fringe benefits is projected to decrease by $314,000 despite a state-mandated $540,000 increase in pension fund contributions. The city hopes to negotiate health insurance savings of nearly $900,000.
“This is why most of the budget [preparation] was in executive session,” Tucker said. “We reached a zero [tax increase] budget, and everybody stays working. It can be done.”
Actually, five retirees aren’t being replaced, but there were no layoffs.
Tucker’s fight with the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. may result in an increase in the city “bed tax” on hotel and motel bills from 4 percent to 5 percent in 2014.
In a meeting Tuesday with NTCC President John Percy, Tucker asked the corporation to pay the annual $23,000 cost of the summer Towpath Trolley every year. Percy said Lockport should raise the bed tax to pay for the trolley, noting that Niagara Falls did that six years ago and uses the extra 1 percent to fund a trolley service downtown and along Niagara Falls Boulevard during the tourist season.
A bed tax hike would require State Legislature approval. Percy said, “We would cover [the trolley] for a year until the bed tax gets done.”
Tucker said the city isn’t committing to paying three-quarters of its remaining bed tax to the NTCC, something Percy says is required by state law. The money is in the budget as a revenue, but its use is unspecified. However, a new city marketing director job was deleted from the final budget.
Tucker said he’ll present the bed tax increase to the hoteliers to gauge their reaction.