Today’s news:

Council’s budget increases spending on services

A City Council budget proposal released Monday calls for spending nearly $400 million more on education and social services while setting aside a “rainy-day” fund to help offset budget deficits, Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) said.

The plan, which relies on the city ending this fiscal year with a $319 million projected surplus, also includes tax breaks for homeowners to help them cope with the 18.5 percent property tax hike and for restaurants and bars suffering from the city’s smoking ban, said Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), chairman of the Finance Committee.

“Today this Council is presenting a balanced budget that protects New York’s most vital priorities, gives tax relief and responsibly puts money away for a rainy day,” said the speaker, who is eyeing a run for mayor in 2005.

Queens could see the reopening of Engine Company 216 in Long Island City under the Council plan. Part of the $400 million in funding restorations and new initiatives is $8 million for the Fire Department to reopen the six firehouses, including Engine 216, that were closed due to budget constraints last year, Miller said.

The proposal also calls for a $46 million education investment that would reduce class size in kindergarten through third grades and provide training for special education teachers, Weprin said.

Money would also be set aside for cultural institutions, including $30 million to maintain weekend service hours at the Queens Borough Public Library, Weprin said.

“The Queens Library is the biggest in the city, so they will get a big share of that money,” he said of the library funds. “This will allow for weekend service.”

To help stem future budget cuts, the Council would like to put $100 million away into a “rainy day” fund to ensure essential services can be maintained during periods of economic downturns, Miller said

Queens homeowners, restaurants and bars would get tax relief under the Council’s budget. The proposal recommends a 2 percent across-the-board rollback on the property tax, which was raised 18.5 percent during last year’s budget negotiations. Seniors on fixed incomes would receive a complete rollback, Weprin said.

For borough restaurants and bars, which were hit hard by the city’s smoking ban, the Council plan calls for a three-year 30 percent business tax reduction.

“New York’s small businesses need all the help they can get,” Miller said.

The budget also proposes rolling back parking ticket fines from $115 to $95 and instituting an amnesty program for people who have unpaid summonses going back three years.

These tax and fine cuts would be exchanged for a reciprocal 1.1 percent commuter tax. The levy would collect money from out-of-town residents who work in the city to pay for municipal services, netting about $1 billion. The city would also reimburse suburban counties for costs incurred by city residents who commute to jobs there, Miller said.

A proposed commuter tax tacked onto last year’s budget plan was rejected by the state legislators who would have to pass the measure.

Overall, the Council budget would reshuffle about $1 billion in new and existing items to the $45.7 billion budget outlined by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in January. Bloomberg proposed a one-time property tax rebate of $400 for homeowners, and the executive budget anticipates that any surpluses will be eaten up by the rising costs of Medicaid, pension contributions and other mandated expenses.

“Our budget goes a long way towards improving on the mayor’s budget by providing critical restorations for essential services that will benefit the entire city,” Weprin said.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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