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Mount Vernon mayor vows to raise taxes himself if council won't act

City of Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis replies

City of Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis replies to comments during an open meeting at City Hall as residents speak out against a proposed budget that calls for considerable tax increases. (Dec. 6, 2012) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

If the Mount Vernon City Council doesn't adopt a 2013 budget before the end of the year, Mayor Ernie Davis said he'll unilaterally adopt the $93.3 million budget approved by the city's Board of Estimate and Contract two weeks ago, including the plan's 6.65 percent property tax increase.

"Hopefully it's legal," said Davis. "That's the budget we'll use."

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 on Jan. 1.

The City Council has scheduled special meetings on Thursday and Friday when they will discuss the budget, according to the city's website. Both begin at 7 p.m.

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 on 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 next year. 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, closing the Oak Street firehouse and trimming other spending, including funding that could force the city library to close. Those measures were included in the budget approved by the board.

The council was scheduled to vote on the budget on 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 declined to say who opposed the mayor's budget. But she has approved it, at least tentatively.

Apuzzo and the mayor 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 of debt to pay operating expenses. All three are Democrats.

It's not clear if the mayor could use the $93.3 million budget approved by the Board of Estimate and Contract if the City Council doesn't act, Apuzzo said. City lawyers are examining the issue. "It's still under legal debate," she said.

But Apuzzo said she's contacted state officials to warn them Mount Vernon might not make its Jan. 1 deadline to adopt a new budget. That warning forestalls penalties that the state might impose, she said.

The City Council also is meeting Wednesday, but because the budget isn't on its agenda, members can't legally vote on it, Apuzzo said.

"I don't know where it's going to go at this point," she said. "We have to vote on a responsible budget for the city."

Davis said he understood why some City Council members might oppose hiking taxes. Initially, he had proposed a 9.8 percent tax increase to cover the funding gap. He couldn't further reduce the tax increase for next year and not seriously cut into vital city programs, he said.

"I won't do that at the expense of not being able to deliver services," he said. "That would be irresponsible."

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