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COUNCIL OKS $25.4 MILLION BUDGET WITH TAX HIKE

The City Council on Monday night unanimously approved a $25.4 million 2003 budget that increases the tax rate by 93 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Lawmakers adopted the spending plan with little discussion but made two amendments. Council President Michael J. Mistretta, D-at large, proposed adding $90,000 to the contingency fund and reducing the unemployment insurance account by $15,000. The larger item is mainly to account for the likelihood that two firefighters will be rehired next year because of two retirements expected in the department.

The changes added another 39 cents to the tax rate after lawmakers had cut the increase down to 54 cents.

The 2002 spending plan -- after being cut but still including a $6.64 per $1,000 tax rate increase and several layoffs in the Police and Fire departments -- was adopted nearly a month late.

However, after lawmakers approved a new budget process with strict deadlines, Mayor Sam Teresi presented an executive spending plan that would go into effect by default if the Council didn't adopt a budget by Dec. 8.

Mistretta said that gave the Council a "very good" starting point.

The budget presented by Teresi and his administration included a tax increase of $1.91 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The mayor was in Albany for a meeting of the New York State Conference of Mayors legislative program development panel. He did, though, offer some written comments about the budget, which he called a "reasonable and workable plan for the coming fiscal year."

"Quite frankly, to be able to deliver a budget of this caliber, after what this city has gone through over the past several years, is nothing short of remarkable," said Teresi. "It is also an incredible tribute to the commitment and fine work of both our outstanding staff and you, the members of the City Council."

He also express some concerns and still questioned some of the changes made by the Council, including appropriations in the contingency, employee health care benefits, capital projects and deficit reduction line items.

Even 2nd Ward Councilman Anthony J. Dolce, a Republican who has been the biggest critic of past budgets and budget hikes, was satisfied. Dolce said the fact the mayor and his administration made a "realistic" budget proposal made the process much easier. Still, he expressed some frustration.

"We were that close to bringing a zero (percent increase) in, and I think we could do a little better if we made some harder decisions," said Dolce, who agreed with resident Peter Morganti that the Council should have taken $50,000 from the line item for a citywide revaluation. Morganti made his comments during a public hearing on the budget prior to the vote.

On another matter, the Council also unanimously accepted the city's $1.7 million 2002 community development block grant and $483,000 HOME grant awards.

This year's program, said Steven Centi, director of development, includes funding for housing rehabilitation, building facade improvements and making further improvements to public facilities for the disabled.

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