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Editorial: Mount Vernon's rocky spending plan

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

Facing a fiscal molehill of their own, leaders in the City of Mount Vernon on Wednesday hammered out a budget deal -- technically a day late but still in time for the new year.

The five-member City Council, all Democrats, voted 4-1 to approve a roughly $94-million budget that will increase property taxes by 6.15 percent. The tax hike is slightly less than Democratic Mayor Ernie Davis' initial proposal, but nonetheless showed that the council could work out a compromise on a deadline.

That's a good sign for 2013, as are indications that the mayor is open to longer-term budget fixes.

At the eleventh hour of negotiations, cuts were made to the mayor's travel budget, as well as items across many departments. And taxi medallion fees were increased along with taxes.

But lawmakers shouldn't pop open the bubbly just yet; there's plenty more to do. The city has very real problems -- structural, financial and societal -- that aren't going away.

Like so many cities across this state and country, Mount Vernon isn't flush with cash. It's spending more than it brings in.

Some budget issues, like optimistic revenue projections, are relatively small. More serious is crime. Mount Vernon recorded 10 homicides in 2012, which was double that of Yonkers, the much-larger city on its western border -- and a 20 percent increase from the year before. The city is also dealing with gang-related crime on its streets and near schools. Those issues require new thinking from the mayor, council, police chief and the community.

For sure, some challenges aren't easily fixed -- certainly not in a single budget -- but they do put into context more easily addressed realities.

For instance, Mount Vernon leaders should be working overtime in contract talks so that all city workers eventually kick in for health care, not just city cops and firefighters, who already pay 20 percent.

The city can't continue borrowing for operating expenses either, like the $2.5 million it approved for tax settlements in 2013. Those expenses will be recurring until the city addresses a wholesale property revaluation. Mount Vernon has not done so since 1858.

And the confusing hybrid status of the public library, which is technically chartered as a school district library but mostly funded through the city, shouldn't be ignored. The city should either adequately fund the institution (it set aside $3.3 million in 2013) so that it doesn't have to continually resort to the limited hours and weekend closures seen in 2012, or move to have the school district manage it entirely.

Mount Vernon must face its challenges head on, and now that this year's budget debate is behind them, city leaders can begin addressing needed reforms. There's no shortage to choose from.

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