Monday night's public hearing on Mayor Josh Cohen's proposed budget for 2012 elicited a spectrum of comments from the packed council chambers.
Some thought the budget was a step in the right direction. Others thought spending needed to be cut more. A different group of people wanted to make sure that community grant funding wouldn't be cut further.
While the range of comments could easily induce a headache, Mayor Josh Cohen said it's exactly what he expected.
“I expected the range of testimony,” said Cohen in a phone interview Tuesday. “Countless people asked that the city focus on 'core services,' but it's not like we are a bicycle shop and our core services can be reduced to repairing bicycles. Everyone has a different opinion on what our core services should be.”
The lengthy meeting included pleas from charity groups making the case that their funding should be included in the proposed $250,000 going to community grant programs, as well as testimony from environmentalists who wanted to applaud the administration for proposing to raise storm water fees.
However, Cohen believes the proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year is “efficient but effective.”
Some citizens don't agree.
“The city is ignoring the obvious fiscal problems facing the city,” said Bill Kardash, an Annapolis resident. “Based on the Mayor's proposed budget for 2012, it's hard to imagine that he foresees anything other than sunshine and blue skies.”
Bill Vining echoed the same sentiment when he asked the city council to do one thing: reduce spending.
“Stop increasing spending, reduce spending,” said Vining. “The county is reducing spending, the county has layoffs.”
The Mayor's proposed $92.6 million operating budget would increase spending by roughly $17.5 million compared to the adopted budget for the current fiscal year. According to the mayor's budget presentation in March, this figure is based on a new accounting method and based on the previous accounting method used, the budget would be 86.2 million. But the Mayor is quick to point out that there isn't new spending in his proposal.
“It's not new spending, we're taking a lot of money to put toward the fund balance,” said Cohen. “We also have higher costs for existing personnel.”
Cohen said this budget represents vital spending.
“The spending level in this budget is the basic level needed to provide basic services,” said Cohen.
Not everyone disagreed with the Mayor's proposal.
“This budget was a huge step forward,” said Joe Budge, Vice President of the Ward One Residents Association.
Budge also said he supported plans for a circulator shuttle that would ferry residents and visitors from garages further from downtown, like Park Place and Gotts,' to the shops and restaurants in the heart of the historic district.
The Debate Over Fees
While the operating budget brought many residents out to the hearing, the Mayor's proposed fee hikes are shaping up to be a contentious issue as well.
Among the proposed changes is an increase in the cost of garbage service, which would also reduce the number of pick-ups to once a week. Currently, city residents pay $380 per year for the service, but if the Mayor's proposal is adopted, the yearly cost would jump to $426.
Although there has been some push back from residents on a hike in garbage fees, Cohen suggests that the cost to residents was far too low for years, and that the services have to pay for themselves.
“The fees were kept artificially low for years, and this budget brings them back to normal levels,” said Cohen.
Another proposed fee hike drew criticism from business owners and associations. Cohen has proposed a water and sewer increase that some say could significantly impact the financial health of restaurants and hotels downtown.
“This kind of increase will have a severe impact on hotels and restaurants,” said Cindy Reiner of the Annapolis Business Association. “We would like more discussions between businesses downtown and city officials.”
But Alderman Ross Arnett (D-Ward 8) was quick to counter that these fee increases are needed.
“These increases are justified and well overdue,” said Arnett.
James LoBosco, General Manager of , said that the water increase could cost a hotel like his upwards of $30,000. A rate hike like the one proposed would mean the hotel would need to take in about $200,000 in new revenue, he said.
“I speak as the voice of one, but I'm sure there would be a line behind me if other business owners knew what was going on,” said LoBosco.
LoBosco did say he could be in favor of a gradual increase, so that businesses could prepare for the higher rate.
“I'm not objective to being a part of the solution,” said Lobosco. “But I oppose that those changes go into effect in July, I'd like a gradual scale.”
After LoBosco spoke, Arnett floated the idea of having separate rates for citizens and businesses.
“We would need to figure out what the shift of burden would be,” said Arnett, adding that to take some burden off of businesses, more cost would need to be shifted to residents in a split-system.
This last point prompted Tony Evans of Annapolis to walk down the aisle and add his two cents to the conversation.
“Does it cost any different to send a gallon of water to me than anyone else,” asked Evans. “I don't dispute the need to raise rates, but why should I pay more for a gallon of water than anyone else.”
With weeks of deliberations coming down the pipeline, there will be further opportunities for city residents to add their voice. The finance committee will begin deliberations on the budget on Thursday at 2 p.m. at the . The meeting is open to the public.