More than 200 Mount Vernon residents packed City Council chambers Thursday night, calling on city officials to cut spending instead of hitting them with a nearly double-digit property tax hike to try to balance the 2013 budget.
"You're looking at people who have struggled over the years, and we will not allow you to continue raising our taxes, year after year," said Angela Fontanez, echoing the sentiments of dozens who approached the podium to blast city officials. "It's just wrong."
Mayor Ernie Davis' proposed $99.4 million budget calls for spending $6 million more than in the 2012 budget, an increase that city officials attribute to rising pension and health care costs and declining revenues from property taxes.
"It's obligations of which we have no control that are driving up the costs," Davis told the packed room at City Hall. "These are tough times. We are trying to find ways to lower the tax rate."
Davis listed some of the measures being considered to lower the tax rate: closing down the Oak Street firehouse, which would save $800,000; imposing five furlough days on city employees, at a savings of $500,000; and requiring city employees to contribute to health care costs, which would save an estimated $500,000.
City Comptroller Maureen Walker took issue with Davis' budget figures, suggesting that many of his revenue estimates are faulty and prompting a brief exchange with Davis as members of the audience jeered him.
The proposed 9.8 percent tax increase -- which would cost the average taxpayer about $315 a year -- exceeds the state's 2 percent tax cap, but council members voted 3-2 to override the cap in November. Mount Vernon increased property taxes by 6.6 percent in 2011 and 4 percent in 2010.
Residents who spoke at Thursday's public hearing said they want the city to cut department spending and find other ways to balance 2013's budget.
"I'm very angry right now," Karen Johnson said. "Eighty percent of this budget is salaries. Something is wrong with this picture."
Labor costs are expected to go up by more than $1 million in 2013 and overall account for 78 cents of every dollar the city spends every year.
Davis' proposed budget shows labor obligations aren't the only factors driving up spending, though.
For example, the mayor's office's $305,484 budget for 2013 proposes no salary increases for Davis and his staff, but it does seek to double his "office expenses" to $10,000 and travel budget to $4,000 from $2,000, according to a draft of the budget. The city Finance Department also is seeking more money for office expenses, from $10,000 to $20,000 in 2013.
Office expenses in the city's other departments would remain largely flat or increase only slightly.
The Police Department's proposed budget would increase spending by nearly $600,000 in 2013, according to budget figures, mostly as a result of increasing wages and benefits. The Fire Department's budget would increase by a similar amount.
The Mount Vernon City Council must approve the budget by Dec. 31.