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Mount Vernon OKs budget after deadline

Mount Vernon City Council member Deborah Reynolds casts

Mount Vernon City Council member Deborah Reynolds casts the lone dissenting vote against the mayor's proposed 2013 budget, citing a lack of relief for the city's taxpayers. (Jan. 2, 2013) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

With little fanfare, the Mount Vernon City Council on Wednesday approved the city's 2013 budget, a $94 million spending package that includes pay raises for police and firefighters, cuts to library funding and a tax increase.

The vote was 4 to 1, with City Councilwoman Deborah Reynolds casting the lone dissenting vote, citing a lack of relief for the city's taxpayers.

"They said they needed relief and we didn't give it to them," Reynolds said.

Approval of the mayor's spending package comes one day late -- Tuesday was the state-required deadline to adopt the city's budget -- and follows weeks of wrangling by council members over the tax hike and proposed spending cuts.

Mayor Ernie Davis, a Democrat, had vowed to unilaterally adopt the budget -- which he submitted more than a month late -- if the council members failed to approve his spending package before the end-of-the-year deadline.

After weeks of posturing, council members agreed to support the mayor's budget in exchange for his consideration of reforms they are seeking, including weaning the city's library off public funding, raising the price for taxi medallions from $500 per year to $2,000 per year to generate new revenue and re-evaluating the city's funding for the school district.

But their support also highlighted the limits of their legislative authority under the city's strong-mayor form of government, which gives the five-member council little power to change the mayor's proposed spending plan. Council members were able to cut about $250,000 from the budget but were unable to push through major additions to the spending package.

"We went line by line to bring this budget down," Councilman Yuhanna Edwards said before voting on the budget Wednesday. "There was nothing more we could do by law to reduce this budget."

The budget package features a slightly lower property tax rate increase, to 6.15 percent, than the one Davis had proposed. Council members were able to whittle down the increase after reducing the mayor's 2013 travel budget by $5,000 and operating expenses in other city departments.

Davis' budget cuts library funding to $3.3 million, about $250,000 less than in 2012, and pledges to borrow $2.5 million to pay outstanding tax challenges residents filed against the city. It also cuts operating funds for several city departments.

City officials said labor costs -- which are projected to rise by more than $1 million in 2013 and overall account for 78 cents of every dollar the city spends -- are driving up the city's annual operating costs.

Police and firefighters will get 3 percent across-the-board pay raises in 2013 under an existing labor contract, at a cost to the city of roughly $1.2 million combined.

The city's police and fire personnel now contribute 20 percent to health care premiums -- higher than most other cities in Westchester County -- but general employees such as those at the library still receive free health care.

Davis is pushing for concessions by unionized city workers, but that isn't likely to produce savings in 2013.

Mount Vernon Comptroller Maureen Walker, the city's financial watchdog, opposed Davis' budget because it relies too heavily on borrowing to pay the city's outstanding bills, among other criticisms.

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