OSWEGO — Port City property owners are likely to see tax bills in 2020 that mirror their 2019 numbers, as early versions of the spending plan include no major changes in revenue or spending, according to officials.
Mayor Billy Barlow is planning to unveil the full 2020 tentative budget to the common council tonight, but provided The Palladium-Times with a glimpse of the spending plan ahead of the meeting. Under Barlow’s plan, which requires a vote of support from the council, the city would spend slightly less money in 2020 and keep taxpayers’ rates at or around the $15.28 per $1,000 of assessed value put in place last year.
“There’s no tax increase, no increase in fees, water or sewer fees and no use of the city general fund to balance the budget,” Barlow said of his proposed 2020 budget. “Pretty much everything is staying the same.”
There are no major changes in the 2020 spending plan, Barlow said, noting the proposed plan would “hold the line” on taxes following the city’s first property tax cut in two decades last year. Rolled out with much fanfare, that tax cut brought the rate down slightly more than 2 percent from the $15.67 per $1,000 of assessed value of 2018.
“We’re holding the line on everything, backing up our tax reduction from last year and putting ourselves in a good position for the next couple of years,” Barlow said. “We’re still in a stable position and I believe we’re striking the balance between investing in our buildings and equipment to make the strategic investments required to keep moving the city forward, but doing it in a responsible way.”
Barlow said the budget would continue to follow a return-on-investment-driven strategy, with improvements to assets like city buildings, equipment, technology and events.
Overall spending in 2020 under the mayor’s plan is $45,210,418, down from $46,012,604 in 2019, Barlow said, despite an increase in overall employee salaries of about $176,000. The city’s budget, Barlow noted, is roughly 51 percent personnel costs, 14 percent fringe benefits, 24 percent contractual obligations, 5 percent equipment and 6 percent debt.
Revenues, which were slightly less than $34 million in 2019, would largely remain the same under the mayor’s proposal, with a $200,000 jump in sales tax, from $13.8 million to $14 million, making up the most significant difference. The city received about $14.6 million in sales tax in 2018, following about $14.2 million in 2017, according to Barlow, who noted the $14 million projection for 2020 is still conservative.
Council Vice President Kevin Hill, R-3rd Ward, who sits on the city budget committee, said in reviewing Barlow’s proposed budget that his top priority would be to continue ensuring the city’s code enforcement office has adequate resources to carry out the services it provides. Hill noted code enforcement services have a “direct and tangible impact on the quality of life” of Oswego residents.
“I will also continue to support efforts to revitalize our community, invest in our assets, provide the necessary services our citizens rely on and pursue sustainable opportunities for growth,” Hill said. “These priorities will be balanced with the need to limit or eliminate any potential tax increases.”
With three budgets already under his belt, Barlow said the process this year was slightly different than the previous incarnations, and more time was spent on a deep dive into prior spending trends and which budget lines were consistently under or over budget by thousands of dollars.
“That’s what I really zoned in on and what helped balance the budget,” Barlow said. “It’s just more accurate budgeting, and this year I had the experience and the time to do it.”
Barlow said his first two budgets didn’t allow for such a focus on the details, as they included “big cuts and big changes” necessary for the long-term financial health of the city.
“We spent so much time the first three years buying equipment and catching up on deferred maintenance that there wasn’t as much stuff that I could easily scratch off or promise to have in,” Barlow said.
Barlow said he’s been working on the budget since early June, meeting with department heads and providing data to City Chamberlain Deborah Coad, who compiles spending and revenue figures and ultimately creates the budget document by mid-July before returning it to the mayor to re-examine.
The budget process has gotten easier over the years, Barlow said, noting the first few years were marked by difficult decisions, including cutting roughly two dozen employee positions, mostly from the fire department. He said the city’s financial health has also improved in recent years, Barlow said, which also makes putting together a spending plan significantly easier.
Despite an improved financial outlook, the mayor said it’s important to continue smart, responsible spending.
“I’m not going to say we’re financially out of the woods by any means, we still have to be smart, but winning grant money to take care of large investments that need to happen helps,” he said. “And when we made those tough cuts the first two years — we eliminated 17 positions the first year then another eight or nine in the second — that’s money that is now available for budgets. That has certainly helped and we’ve had a spike in sales tax because of the economy.”
City officials plan to finalize and adopt the 2020 budget following an Aug. 26 public hearing on the spending plan. Prior to that, the council’s budgeting committee is expected to meet several times to review and potentially make changes to the mayor’s proposal.
Hill said Sunday that councilors had not yet finalized a schedule for budget talks, but would likely do so today.