ALBANY — Albany city commissioners debated whether to fund independent agencies during a special-called budget hearing Monday, after the Albany Civil Rights Institute petitioned the body for money.
Last week, the commission tentatively voted to provide up to $150,000 for the Flint RiverQuarium if it agreed to functionally merge with Chehaw.
That move opened the door for the Albany Civil Rights Institute, who asked City Manager James Taylor over the weekend for $50,000.
"I gave them a personal check for $500, but I'm not giving them any of the people's money unless directed by this board," Taylor told commissioners.
Taylor, who didn't include funding for any non-government agencies in his FY 2013 general fund budget, is trying to close a $6.5 million shortfall. His recommendation includes trimming vacant city positions, pulling $2 million from the city's sewer enterprise fund and mandatory cuts on non-public safety departments.
Even with those proposals, Taylor is having to recommend a 1.33-mill increase to the city's property tax rate, which hasn't been increased since 2008.
With time running out to pass a FY 2013 budget before the year starts on July 1, commissioners have begun tinkering with the pending plan, offering up areas to cut in hopes of avoiding a tax increase.
Chief among them is Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta, who suggested cuts and policy changes Monday that he said would generate roughly $4.5 million of revenue to help close the gap.
Marietta pointed to potential savings realized through the city's use of a new health clinic, closing vacant positions, taking another look at the city's portion of local-option sales taxes and then transferring 10 percent of the city's capital improvements program budget into the general fund as ways to bridge the gap.
Even so, a millage rate increase would likely be needed, but when he offered a compromise of one-third of a mill rather than the 1.33 mill that is currently on the table, the commission voted it down 1-4-1, with Marietta the only supporter. Commissioner Jon Howard abstained and Commissioner Christopher Pike was absent.
"I think to jump into a large tax increase sends the wrong message to businesses and will stunt our economic development efforts," Marietta said. "I don't want a tax increase, but if we're going to do it, incrementally would be better."
Some on the commission felt differently.
"No one wants to raise taxes because we'll have to pay them, too. But if you want the services to stay the same, you're going to have to pay for them. It's as simple as that," Commissioner Tommie Postell said.
Ward II Commissioner Ivey Hines said that he was disturbed that previous commissions had allowed the city to get to the point where they could get $7 million in the hole. "That's the bottom line. If we raise taxes, it'll generate $2 million. We're $7 million in the hole, so we're not doing anything that we won't have to face next year," Hines said. "It disturbs me that we've to the point where we're $7 million in the hole."
After his motion failed, Marietta asked if the amount saved by closing all vacant positions could be used to fund the RiverQuarium and the Civil Rights Institute, but was rebuffed by Taylor for micromanaging the budget.
"You tell me what to fund, but you let me do the how," Taylor said.