Several members of Albany’s Budget Committee boiled down Tuesday night’s budget vote to one question:
What kind of city do you want to live in?
The board voted 8-4 to accept the proposed budget. It now has to go before the City Council for final approval.
The proposed budget, which totals $345 million in all funds and about $86 million in the general fund, included cuts to several city departments including the police and fire departments — cuts which dominated the committee's conversations over its past three meetings.
While the City Council approved an increase in fees the Fire Department assesses for plan reviews, ambulance rides and other services (increases that helped the department avoid layoffs and freeze three firefighter positions), the Albany Police Department still faces a shortfall of $518,000 in the first year of the two-year budget, according to Finance Director Jeanna Yeager.
Yeager and staff were tasked by the committee to find a way to fill that $518,000 hole and offered tentative solutions Tuesday night, which included raising the city’s franchise fees. However, the committee took no action on those solutions.
The proposed budget includes freezing one lieutenant position and three officer positions in the Police Department in year one and in year two and freezing an additional lieutenant position and two additional officer positions. The cuts would bring the number of sworn positions to 58, a 15-year low. The department's street crimes and traffic units would also be disbanded.
“We have to make some tough decisions,” said committee member and City Councilor Bill Coburn. He asked the committee to keep City Manager Peter Troedsson’s budget message in mind, as it outlined the need to prepare for the possibility of a recession, as some economists are forecasting.
Committee member and Councilor Bessie Johnson asked Troedsson if there were other methods to raise revenues.
Troedsson said other municipalities had implemented a payroll tax, but that it was his understanding the committee did not want to burden taxpayers.
In the same vein, committee and council member Alex Johnson III said he would want a public vote on proposed increases in franchise fees.
But Mayor Sharon Konopa noted that the city is not obligated to ask voters to approve increases in franchise fees.
“We are at a time when the property taxes do not support services,” she said. “It’s either that or the population has to stop growing.” She noted that a utility fee could generate funds for the city as well.
Johnson made the motion to accept the budget as presented.
“If we pass it as it stands, the police don’t get any; basically, the cuts are the cuts?” Bessie Johnson asked.
The vote passed 8-4. Konopa, Coburn, Bessie Johnson and board member and Councilor Rich Kellum voted against the motion.
“Notice who the four are,” committee member Kellum said. “This will come up again.”
Three of the four "no" votes came from the six-member City Council. The fourth "no" vote came from Konopa, who would vote only if the council deadlocks.
The proposed budget also grants Maple Lawn Preschool a 12-month reprieve by using revenue from the increased Fire Department fees. This gives the preschool a year to find another funding source before it would be closed in the second year of the budget.