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Lockport mayor suggests tapping surplus, starting recycling program

Mayor Michael W. Tucker said Friday that he thinks the Common Council should tap the city's surplus to avoid a big tax increase in the 2010 budget, perhaps while starting a recycling program at the same time.

The budget the Council started working on this week totaled nearly $24.8 million, which would be a $2.2 million spending increase from this year. So far, the Council has reduced the budget by $438,110, leaving a year-to-year increase of more than $1.7 million.

Although City Clerk and Budget Director Richard P. Mullaney have refused the Council's requests to calculate a tax rate until other revenue estimates are finished, it's clear the tax increase would be well into double-digit percentages without a hefty application of money from the surplus, or fund balance.

The city has $3.9 million in that account as of the end of 2008. This year's budget called for spending $750,000 of that, but current estimates by City Treasurer Michael E. White say only about $390,000 will be needed.

"We are without question going to take some of the fund balance," Tucker said. "You don't keep collecting taxes so you can put it in the bank."

Mullaney cautioned against overuse of the surplus. "You've got to put together a plan or it'll be gone in a couple of years," he warned the Council.

Although the question of beginning to offer full curbside recycling dominated a nearly two-hour work session Friday, the primary reason for the spending increase is expected pay raises for the city's five unions.

The city expects to reach agreements soon with four of the five unions, which are expected to include retroactive raises for 2009 as well as more raises for 2010. The fifth union, the Lockport Professional Firefighters Association, has declared an impasse in talks and is expected to obtain its raises through a binding arbitration decision.

The Council has cut $274,310 in retroactive raises from the 2010 budget, which signals an expectation that money will have to be paid before Dec. 31, probably by tapping the surplus, Mullaney said.

But $110,000 in retro pay for firefighters was left in the 2010 budget, because Mullaney said he expects neither a settlement nor an arbitration award before Jan. 1.

Despite all the talk about recycling, 82 percent of the budget is salaries and benefits for city employees.

"Recycling is not what's bankrupting the city," said Alderwoman Richelle J. Pasceri, R-1st Ward. "We have too many employees."

The $335,000 recycling plan is a step in the right direction, she said, because it would be privatized. Modern Disposal was the low bidder.

"We could probably do it ourselves a little cheaper, but 25 years from now, all those men would be retiring," Pasceri said.

"I'm not worried about 25 years from now," retorted Alderman Patrick W. Schrader, D-4th Ward, who insisted he would support recycling only if it were coupled with a garbage user fee for tax-exempt properties and businesses that receive more than one pickup per week.

"People are crying for this service," Pasceri said of recycling.

"I haven't seen one tear," Schrader shot back.

"The public has told me they don't want it," said Alderman Joseph C. Kibler, R-at large. "They don't want it if there's going to be a tax increase."

Pasceri insisted that the net cost of recycling wouldn't be $335,000, but roughly $100,000. She said there would be cost avoidance by landfilling less trash and by ending the city-operated newspaper and cardboard recycling plan.

She said the state Department of Environmental Conservation might force Lockport to recycle, but Tucker said the city will continue to escape that mandate through its program of composting sewage sludge and leaves.

"It's not really recycling, but it meets our requirement," the mayor said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com