CITY OF NEWBURGH, New York — The Newburgh City Council on Thursday night approved its 2020 financial plan that includes steep layoffs to public safety and a tax increase for non-homestead payers after an emotionally-charged meeting at the Activity Center.
The $46.8 million budget plan calls for the elimination of 35 public-safety positions, six of which are funded-vacancies; meaning 15 uniformed police positions and 14 uniformed firefighters will be cut.
Meanwhile, the city voted for a .25 percent decrease next year for homestead property tax-payers and a 4.26 percent increase for non-homestead payers.
"There is no way that they can expect more with less," Acting fire Chief Terry Ahlers said after the vote. "With the cuts they just made, they made is so that we have a person for each position.
"As soon as one person takes off ... every single time someone takes off, now it's overtime. They just set us up to fail again next year."
Matt Gayton, a city firefighter who was laid off in 2018 and rehired this year through the federal SAFER grant, said he will most likely be laid off again with this new round of cuts.
Clearly upset, he walked by Ahlers outside the Activity Center and said, "Well, that's it. Looks like I'm going to have to sell my house."
Patty Sofokles, whose son is a New York City police detective, was the only person on the seven-member council to vote against the budget plan.
The city has worked on minimizing the layoffs and tax burden since mid-October, when the city manager proposed an overall 20 percent property-tax increase and layoffs of about a dozen police and firefighters in each department.
The initial proposal included layoffs for civilian members of the public-safety departments, such as dispatchers.
But the council chose to save those after police and fire dispatchers pleaded with city staff not to cut them.
City Comptroller Todd Venning told the council during Tuesday's work session that after saving those civilian jobs and receiving a $441,000 bill this month for public-safety retirements, the number of uniformed personnel cuts had to go up to balance the budget.
About 200 firefighters and fire department supporters from around the region picketed outside the Activity Center before the meeting.
Emotions ran high during the public-comment portion of the meeting.
"I have lived on Grand Street for five years now, and when there was the shooting in the summer, I heard it, and I heard everything," said resident Caitlan Bose. "And within 30 seconds, the police officers responded and they were there. If our first instinct is to lay off firefighters and police officers, this is going to turn into the Wild Wild West."
Nick Bedetti, vice president of the local firefighter union, spoke against the cuts, telling the council the proposed layoffs would reduce fire personnel by 25 percent, increasing danger for the public and those fighting the fires.
Bedetti ended his comments saying the department needs a full-time chief and no cuts, to which Mayor Torrance Harvey laughed.
In reaction, retired New York City firefighter James Bittles called out from the back of the room, asking the council members how much they were being paid.
Harvey then called upon city police Chief Doug Solomon to escort the man out of the building.
Venning addressed the crowd before the budget vote, saying the city is essentially facing bankruptcy.
He said the Office of the State Comptroller gave the City of Newburgh a $15 million loan in 2009 when the city became insolvent.
Newburgh is still paying back the loan, and will do so until 2024.
"I don't want to have to go back to OSC and say, 'Hey, we did it again, can you give us another loan?' when we're not done paying off the first loan," Venning said.
Personnel and benefits made up approximately 75 percent of the city's 2019 budget. Venning said there was no other choice than to cut back.
"What everyone in this city needs to understand is this would have never been proposed if this situation was not and is not critical," Venning said. "Newburgh has an opportunity right now to pivot, to reset; to start fixing some of these problems and this is one of the ways we can do it."
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