Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis is vowing to unilaterally adopt the city's 2013 budget if the City Council doesn't approve his proposed $93.3 million spending package -- including a 6.65 percent property tax increase -- by the end of the year.
And the city's legal watchdog is backing him up in the escalating dispute.
In a memo to council members Wednesday, Mount Vernon Corporation Counsel Nichelle Johnson suggested that Davis could legally adopt the budget without City Council approval and argued that rejecting the budget would be a violation of the city's charter.
She warned that rolling over 2012's budget, as some municipalities have done in the past, would have dire consequences for the city.
"While there may be an argument that the city could operate using last year's budget, it is our understanding that if last year's budget were used it would result in the city being out of money before the end of the year," Johnson wrote.
The mayor's unorthodox move comes as the City Council remains divided over whether to approve a new city budget that by state law must take effect Jan. 1.
Council members have scheduled two meetings for Friday, one at 10 a.m. and another at 7 p.m., but at least one member is expected to be absent and it wasn't clear Thursday if Davis had enough votes to get the budget approved.
City Councilman Richard Thomas, who says he will vote against Davis' budget because, among other reasons, it doesn't provide enough funding for the police and fire departments, said he believes Davis is on shaky legal ground by vowing to adopt the budget by himself.
"To take the position that we have no other option but to vote for the budget or face a situation where we will automatically have the budget we rejected defies logic," he wrote in an email to Johnson, Davis and fellow council members. "I'm not a lawyer but I don't believe what he wants to do is legal."
Normally, the City Council makes amendments to the proposed budget after it has been approved by the city's Board of Estimate and Contract. Then the council and mayor negotiate a final version of the spending plan. But the council hasn't taken action on the budget since the board approved it Dec. 13.
"These people are bordering on irresponsible," said Davis, referring to City Council members but declining to specify who was responsible for the gridlock. "This is politics to me gone bad."
If the council doesn't adopt a budget, Davis said he'd have no choice but to use the version approved by the Board of Estimate and Contract because the city needs to cover state-mandated cost increases, salary raises promised in labor contracts and other bills that have resulted in a $5.6 million budget gap for 2013. The city charter doesn't address what happens if the City Council fails to adopt a budget, he added.
To plug the spending gap, Davis has proposed hiking taxes, furloughs for city workers and trimming other spending, including funding that could force the city library to run out of operating expenses before the end of 2013. Those measures were included in the budget approved by the board.
The council was scheduled to vote on the budget Dec. 21, but members canceled that meeting. Now some City Council members want to reduce the property tax increase and find other cuts to bridge the gap.
"We have council members who are looking at different options," said City Council President Roberta Apuzzo.
Apuzzo and Davis both sit on the Board of Estimate and Contract. Both voted in favor of the proposed budget. The third member of the board, City Comptroller Maureen Walker, voted against it, saying it unwisely would float $2.5 billion worth of debt to pay operating expenses. All three are Democrats.
As a safeguard, Apuzzo said she has contacted state officials to warn them Mount Vernon might miss the deadline. That warning forestalls penalties that the state might impose, she said.