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Pesky Ogdensburg brush shows limits of shrinking city budget

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OGDENSBURG — When Councilor Daniel E. Skamperle was elected almost two years ago, one of his first complaints was an unsightly stand of brush along Crescent Street blocking views of the Oswegatchie River.

“I know that nothing has happened, but people keep complaining about it and I don’t blame them — it is a little bit of an eyesore,” he said.

Other council members echoed his concerns at Monday’s City Council meeting.

“I think it is a shame that when you walk around the crescent, you can’t see the river,” Councilor Wayne L. Ashley said. “It has to be cleaned up to set an example.”

Today, the brush remains untrimmed because staffing shortages in the Department of Public Works have left Director Kit W. Smith with too little manpower.

“Once you have people moving on operations, getting streets paved and doing day-to-day maintenance, we don’t have the staff to do what they want,” he said.

Mr. Smith said his department has lost three positions over the past two years.

“Any time when you have budgetary drawbacks or pullbacks, you are going to affect the services you provide,” he said.“There comes a time where we all have to look at what we can actually accomplish and do versus how much we can afford to do. At some point, services will suffer because of the limited budgets we’re under.”

The council authorized interim City Manager Philip A. Cosmo to seek proposals for a private company to come in and trim the brush, Deputy Mayor Michael D. Morley said.

“The services we used to provide are now being contracted out to someone else,” he said. “Not what I would call a positive sign.”

Now, many council members are reconsidering the small-government ideals they brought to City Hall.

“As a city we need to take care of our assets,” Councilor William D. Hosmer said.“We don’t want to blow up the budget, but we have to realize that if we’re not taking care of our city, if there are not enough resources, then we’re not going to have a city to take care of.”

The sparse budget also has affected the city’s Planning Department, which has essentially become a one-woman office, Mr. Ashley said.

“I think that, like many departments in the city, the Planning Department could use a few extra hands, especially when it comes to doing the administration of the grants that we currently have and seeking additional grant funds,” said Andrea L. Smith, interim director of planning and development. “I don’t think that is unique to the Planning Department. Many departments have had to cut back and be more frugal because of the tough economic times we’re going through.”

Mr. Morley questioned whether Ogdensburg’s budget cuts have gone too far.

“You know, we’ve reduced our budget and reduced our budget and reduced our budget to keep costs down,” he said. “I almost feel that we are at the bottom, that we’ve overcut. The things we used to do, we don’t do anymore. We don’t have enough manpower. Maybe we’ve reduced ourselves a little too thin.”

“I know we have not replaced some posts over the past several years,” Mr. Cosmo said. “It is a problem because we have fewer bodies to maintain the exact same workload. If something out of the ordinary pops up, you have less room for contingencies.”

Councilor R. Storm Cilley said the city has reached a breaking point with its staffing levels and the services it can provide.

“Unfortunately, the economic realities facing the city dictate that staffing levels are not going to increase,” he said. “I do believe that we have reached a limit on expecting to do more with less. We will have to be happy with what we have and can afford.”

Unfunded mandates from the state are part of the problem, Mr. Cosmo said, as the city must cope with the rising cost of retirement and health care for public employees.

“We usually use roughly 60 percent of our costs for personnel,” he said. “I don’t think it is unusual for government agencies; what they spend their money on is their employees.”

Mr. Cosmo said he doesn’t expect fiscal situation for the city to improve without outside help.

“I can only think of two ways to deal with the problem,” he said.“We can find other sources of revenue — I know the county is asking to be allowed to raise the sales tax, but I don’t think that is moving too fast; or we can cut expenditures like a person does on their home budget.”

Mr. Morley said that the city may have to consider raising taxes, but that he would be reluctant to support such a measure. And state law limits property tax increases to 2 percent per year.

The cap has severely limited the amount that the city can raise, Mr. Cilley said. “The promised mandate relief that was to accompany this limit has failed to materialize.”

“I was really hoping that they would raise the county sales tax from seven to eight percent,” Mr. Ashley said. “It would have meant a substantial amount of money for the city.”

Unless that happens, Mr. Cosmo said, the city will have to hold the line on providing basic services to its residents.

“We will maintain the services at the level that we can afford to maintain them,” he said.“The basic services that we are required to maintain, those will be our priorities.”

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