Members of the Falls City Council went into a disputed executive session Wednesday night to reportedly discuss a looming $5 million deficit projected for the city’s still unreleased 2020 budget proposal.

Sources close to the budget planning told the Gazette as many as 65 city employees — including 25 police officers and 16 firefighters could be laid off to close the budget gap.

The executive session followed a heated public comment period during which council members were roundly criticized for proposing a hearing on the adoption of a local law that would authorize the collection of a residential, commercial and institutional user fee for refuse collection and recycling.

“Here we go again, resident Joanne Gialloreto said.

Gialloreto accused the council of “financial malpractice and fiduciary irresponsibility.”

Resident Tim Huether said the term user fee was a mischaracterization of the proposal.

“What’s this user fee going to be,” Huether asked. “It’s another revenue stream coming off the backs of taxpayers. What’s the limit?”

In comments after the council meeting, Mayor Paul Dyster disputed the $5 million dollar figure for the budget gap in next’s year’s spending plan, but admitted “that number is in the ball park.”

“The (deficit) numbers are changing on an almost daily basis,” the mayor added.

The mayor indicated that his administration would be proposing the implementation of a user fee as a means to fill the budget gap. He said city lawmakers asked for a private session to discuss the budget gap and how to fill it.

“We were asked by the council if we don’t do the user fee, what would be requited (to balance the 2020 budget),” Dyster said.

As for the potential layoff of dozens of city employees, Dyster said, “That’s not the administration’s proposal. We face some serious reductions in the city workforce, but could achieve some significant savings by eliminating (current) vacancies (in the 2019 budget).”

The mayor disputed the number of layoffs cited to the Gazette.

“I don’t want to get into numbers,” he said. “But it’s a shocking number.”

The mayor also admitted that eliminating vacant positions alone would not be enough to balance the budget proposal.

After emerging from the 50-minute executive session, City Council Chairman Andrew Touma said the council took no action in the closed-door meeting beyond having “a lot of personnel issues to discuss.”

On the question of scheduling a public hearing on the user fee law, Council Member Chris Voccio argued that it was time for the city to make “difficult decisions.”

“I know we’re in a tough bind,” Voccio said, “and we’re making difficult decisions but it’s no different than the difficult decisions some residents are making sitting around their kitchen table. I don’t think this is going to pass anyway so let’s kill it tonight and balance this budget with (the) cuts we need to do. Let’s find a way to cut this budget.”

Some on-lookers in the council chambers applauded Voccio’s comments.

But Touma confronted Voccio and challenged him.

“If you have an alternative to cover the revenue generated by the user fee, let’s see it,” Touma said. “Otherwise the mayor will propose something else.”

Touma told the crowd in the chambers that the city has been using casino revenue to cover the cost of basic city services that taxpayers get. When someone in the crowd yelled, “We pay for that,” Touma countered with, “No you don’t. Your taxes do not cover all the services you ask for and you receive. There is no way around it. You are not paying for (the services) The casino dollars are and you need to know that.”

On a 3-2 vote, with Council Members Voccio and Tompkins dissenting, the local law public hearing was approved. It’s scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 25.

The city’s proposed 2020 budget is required by law to be presented to the City Council on Oct. 1.

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