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Watertown city manager wants earlier council input on budget

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Working on her first city spending plan, City Manager Sharon A. Addison plans to make this year’s budget process a little different from what has been done in the past.

Instead of putting together a budget on her own and then presenting it to the City Council, she is getting council members involved earlier in the process.

Ms. Addison, who was appointed city manager in July, has set up a work session Tuesday to discuss next year’s budget.

She will not present any numbers that night, she said. She said it’s starting a “dialogue” with council members on what direction to take.

“This is a different approach,” she said Wednesday. “I want it to be more transparent and engaging.”

In the past, City Manager Mary M. Corriveau, whom she replaced, made her proposed budget public at the second council meeting in April. That might not happen this year, Ms. Addison said. It will depend partially on what happens at Tuesday’s work session.

Calling it a “logical approach,” Councilwoman Roxanne M. Burns said it makes sense to get council members involved earlier because they pass the city manager’s proposed budget or make amendments to it. She said Mrs. Corriveau “kept the budget shrouded in secrecy” until presenting it to the council.

“It’ll give us a heads-up on how to proceed at this point,” Ms. Burns said.

Council members already have information about what the Water Department would like in the capital projects portion of the budget. Last week, Ms. Addison had Water Superintendent Michael J. Sligar lay out a series of projects he would like for his department.

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said he likes “the deviation in previous years,” especially because the city will deal with a potential pension expense of $3.9 million as a result of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s offer to lower pension payments now and increase them later. In recent weeks, the mayor has said the “pension smoothing” proposal could cost the city more in the long run.

“We’ll have a dialogue on the major issues, so everybody knows where we’re going,” he said, adding that will allow the city to set some priorities.

The new budget process also represents Ms. Addison’s managerial style, Ms. Burns said.

In a practice unfamiliar to the former city manager, Ms. Addison emails weekly updates to council members and doesn’t talk much at council meetings. She relies more on department heads to make presentations and answer questions from council members.

In light of its pension costs, the city may have to make difficult cuts, implement higher property taxes or use the fund balance to keep taxes down, Mr. Graham said. He and Ms. Addison have had general discussions about her budget plans since she began talking with department heads about their wish lists in December.

“I do not anticipate any radical plans,” the mayor said.

He also is more optimistic about the city’s financial situation after seeing the most recent sales tax revenue report, Mr. Graham said. At Monday’s council meeting, he learned sales tax revenue was up $85,612, or 7.96 percent, from the month’s original budget projection, although year-to-date receipts are down $14,370, or 0.1 percent.

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