June 14, 2024

WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) – Watertown lawmakers meet Tuesday night to talk about the proposed 19.3 percent tax rate increase proposed by the city manager.

We asked council members, ideally, what should the tax rate increase be?

Mayor Sarah Pierce wants it around the state tax cap, which is 6 percent. Council Member Ben Shoen agrees.

Council Member Robert Kimball is good with 15 percent, arguing if it’s too low this year, people will pay more next year.

Council Member Lisa Ruggiero wants 5 percent, while Council Member Cliff Olney hopes to whittle it down to 2 to 4 percent, saying the budget’s revenues are off.

One way to bring down the tax rate is to nix a neighborhood project that would put up new street lamps. That could be a $500,000 savings, shaving roughly 5 percent off the tax rate.

But will the council members take back something that was promised?

Council Member Ben Shoen says don’t put them up.

“As it would be said, this is a no-brainer. We could spend $520,000 to pave a street or we could put decorative street lights on a block. Doesn’t make sense to me at all,” he said.

The previous council had unanimously agreed to pay the money to add ornamental street lights to an overall $3 million street construction project on Grant, Seward and Henry streets.

Shoen says to stop this part of the project and bank the money at a time when taxpayers are facing a potential tax rate hike of nearly 19 percent and a $3.5 million deficit. City staff learned the city can back out with no penalty.

At last week’s city council meeting, Council Member Robert Kimball didn’t agree with Shoen’s approach and said he should have discussed it with his colleagues first.

“I would’ve been more receptive to this if it came to the whole council first before it got sent to city staff to do all their magic to figure out what we would save or not save, and how this should go,” he said.

Mayor Sarah Pierce says a lot has changed since the initial decision in 2022. The saved money could indirectly cut the tax rate hike.

“After recent major expenditures, I think it makes sense to revisit it and make that change so we can save that money and hopefully bring that rate down,” she said.

Council Member Lisa Ruggiero says if people are in agreement, she’d be willing to reconsider.

“Because it is ARPA money, it has to be used for certain things. I believe it would have to be used for areas that are considered a lower-income area,” she said.

Council Member Cliff Olney would like to see the project continue with the street lights.

“I don’t look backward because that’s not where I’m going. That was decided unanimously and I believe my vote tonight is going to be to continue it the way it is,” he said.

The city currently has nearly $550,000 from the state it hadn’t budgeted for, which could be used to draw down the proposed 19 percent tax rate increase to 14 percent. Ultimately, the decision on how that money will be spent is up to city council.

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