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Mount Vernon reaches last-minute budget deal

Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis during a news

Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis during a news conference with members of the City Council to announce that his proposed 2013 budget has been approved. (Dec. 31, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

Following weeks of wrangling, the Mount Vernon City Council is expected to approve the city's 2013 budget on Wednesday after four of the five members reached a last-minute deal with Mayor Ernie Davis.

The budget will be approved one day late -- as Tuesday is the state-required deadline to adopt the mayor's $93.3 million spending package -- but city officials said the delay won't impact municipal services or other financial obligations.

"This was a political budget, and it forced us to do a lot of things that I personally don't like," Davis said at a news conference Monday, where he announced the deal. "But we have to send a message that this city is working together."

In exchange for their support of the 2013 budget, City Council members said the mayor has agreed to consider several reforms they are seeking, including weaning the city's library off public funding and raising the price the city charges for taxi medallions from $500 per year to $2,000 per year to generate new revenue for the coffers.

City Councilman Richard Thomas, a fellow Democrat, had led the charge against Davis' proposed budget. Thomas said he has decided to support the budget after meeting with Davis, who has agreed to a number of reforms the councilman has been seeking, including increasing the number of capital projects in the city and re-evaluating funding for schools.

The budget deal features a slightly lower property tax rate, 6.15 percent, which council members were able to whittle down after reducing the mayor's 2013 travel budget by $5,000 and other operating expenses totaling $249,000.

"We spent a lot of time going through the budget, line by line," Council President Roberta Apuzzo said.

But council members said the dispute also had tested the limits of their power under a strong-mayor form of government. Davis had vowed to unilaterally adopt the city's 2013 budget -- which at the time called for a 6.65 percent property tax increase -- if the council failed to approve his spending package before the end-of-the-year deadline.

"We were testing the waters and found out that there was no way we could go beyond what we had already done," said J. Yuhanna Edwards, citing legal opinions that the mayor had the authority to approve the budget with or without the council.

The five-member council -- all Democrats -- has been divided over what cuts the city can make to go along with the tax increase. Councilwoman Karen Watts, who is on vacation this week, was the only member not present at Monday's news conference, and it wasn't clear whether she supports the mayor's budget.

Davis has proposed cutting library funding to $3.3 million, about $250,000 less than in 2012, and borrowing $2.5 million to pay outstanding tax challenges residents filed against the city.

Labor costs are expected to rise by more than $1 million in 2013 and, overall, account for 78 cents of every dollar the city spends every year. Police and firefighters will get 3 percent across-the-board pay raises in 2013.

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.

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

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.

The council is expected to vote on the 2013 budget on Wednesday at a special 3 p.m. meeting at City Hall.

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