The mayor's budget is an opportunity to be both responsible and visionary. But that’s only a first step. Once it is released, the council can either accept the mayor's analysis and judgment, or substitute its own. If a mayor has faithfully produced a balanced budget that properly weighs the priorities of the city, that responsibility is fulfilled and the council’s responsibilities begin. But, in the mayor’s budget, there is an opportunity to speak directly to the taxpayers who so prize our city. Once per year the mayor is afforded an opportunity to either maintain the status quo or set a new course for the City of Plattsburgh. Once in a generation or two the mayor is required to change the direction of our ship for fear that maintenance of our current course will find us marooned on the shoals in treacherous fiscal seas. That moment is upon us.
For the past six years, our city has spent $1.2 million more in the General Fund each year than it had, and moved a $6.8 million fund surplus into a $400 thousand deficit. Meanwhile, other funds too have been drawn down to near zero levels. The five year budget planning tool the City Council recently adopted should help ensure more accurate budgeting. Occasional and recurring Items such as firefighters’ arbitration awards or increased health care expenses will no longer be a surprise. Budgeting must be an exercise in accurate projections of future costs, with the goal of financial sustainability.
My budget is also based on fiscal sustainability. It was formulated based on best practices from New York Conference of Mayors’ data for municipalities north of New York City and smaller than Binghamton. These best practices allow us to not have to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we must merely look at what works elsewhere. Leaders here and elsewhere are not elected to make easy or irresponsible decisions, and instead must spend other people's hard-earned money as if it were their own. Our leaders must also address an even more compelling need - those of retirees who struggle to remain here and the next generation we hope will come. If our elected officials can put our city on the firmest fiscal foundation, our city can live up to both the potential we all see here, and the promise to our children that we won't borrow excessively today and imperil their future tomorrow.
I offer to the Plattsburgh City Council an austere budget. It recognizes and elevates the importance of collaborative planning, and the value we as a community place on good recreation opportunities. But we can do that in more efficient ways, as do the majority of these peers. I propose to trim departments and reduce spending in a number of ways through:
the commissioning of the Clinton County Assessor's Office to perform city residential and commercial assessing, as five other municipalities have likewise commissioned Clinton County to do.
the incorporation of human resources functions on behalf of our employees through collaboration with Clinton County Civil Services, our own payroll office, and the requirement that our hired health care administration consultants resume their practice of situating a health care advisor in our city on a weekly basis to advise our retirees and employees. We will join twenty of thirty two of our peer municipalities that do not support either a full or part time human resources director.
the assumption of building and grounds maintenance of our recreational facilities by our Department of Public Works employees who already mow and maintain our parks and other buildings.
the assumption of administration of our recreational programs by our office of Community Development. Of our thirty two peer municipalities in the NYCOM survey, only seventeen maintain a Parks and Recreation department, even if most support recreation opportunities. If we reduce this administration, we will not have to sacrifice the many part time and seasonal workers that run our important recreation programs.
the administration of our computer network by an entity or entities that maintain very similar networks or provide the broadband services to our City. Only five of our thirty two peer municipalities maintain an IT department. We must look to share this service with other agencies.
the movement to a City Planner model, housed in Community Development, to work much more closely with our Community Development experts in analyses, grant-writing, and regulatory compliance, and with the consulting engineers we consistently employ to spec and design our major projects and roadwork, as is done by twenty two of thirty two peer municipalities, and the vast majority of towns and counties in the North Country, including the Town of Plattsburgh and Clinton County.
improvements in efficiency by wholeheartedly embracing centralized procurement and payroll, as practiced by county government just across the street.
modest reductions in other forms of spending as the city begins to rely more heavily on the private and non-profit sectors rather than on the deep pockets of its taxpayers.
By adopting these practices shared by the majority of similar New York cities up to 240% our size, and by making other adjustments to streamline the services we perform, our elected officials can today save our taxpayers and ratepayers $1.1 million next year and in all future years, and produce the first truly balanced budget in years that actually turns the corner and moves the city from a fund deficit to the slimmest of surpluses. Never before in our history has the city trimmed its budget by so much, and done so as carefully and without the disruption of services our residents see and need.
But, given the depth of our financial challenges that have devolved over the last few years, this is not enough. Please consider this as only a start. The taxpayers of our city cannot afford a tax increase greater than the 2.8% described here and yet still suffer the vulnerability caused by an inadequate fund balance, especially given all the looming uncertainties the city must weather. This budget challenges and implores the council to accept these well-researched and data driven proposals, and take these initiatives still further by finding another $400,000 in savings so that the smallest fathomable fund balance can be created and maintained. I understand how difficult that will be. It will certainly be more painful even than the adjustments already in the mayor's budget. But only if we can do the remaining work together will the Common Council meet halfway the lowest range of the Fund Balance Policy they adopted last year.
This budget calls for a 2.85% increase in the property tax rate, and will produce more than three dollars of spending reductions for every dollar of tax revenue increase. The General Fund proposed appropriations of $22,542,450 are lower by almost a million dollars compared to the 2017 revised budget of $23,537,728. The 2018 Mayor’s Budget proposes temporary and permanent savings that will create a $146,013 surplus in 2018, compared to a $1,094,241 revised budget deficit in 2017. I intend to help the council find additional yet-to-be-determined cuts of at least $403,927, and allow this budget to bring the fund balance to a positive $550,000 in 2018. The city will then be halfway to the lowest end of the council’s fund balance.
This budget process won’t be easy, unless we compare these increasingly difficult choices with the large tax increase that would be necessary in the absence of serious spending reform. The pain pales in comparison to the burden we place on our the elderly who are trying to hold on to the homes in the community where they grew up, or, in the absence of these cuts, the dozens of jobs threatened for those seasonal recreational workers and laborers who staff our beach, deliver our programs in our parks, at the City Gym and Crete Center, and mow our city properties. This budget also strives to uphold the promises from the Council’s June 1 budget statement without having to also lay off dozens of our union employees hired in the past few years to do the bulk of the work to fix our water mains, repair our roads, keep our streets safe, and remove our refuse, in addition to those seasonal and part time employee losses.
In summary, these cuts are incredibly difficult for the handful of managers and their City Hall departments. But, they are not the product of anything but careful research and analysis. These proposals seek to protect the livelihood of the lowest paid employees in our city and the strong desire for our residents to continue to find their homes affordable. If we instead were to adopt a less thoughtful path of budget cuts, we'd maintain the some of the status quo but jeopardize everything our residents have come to cherish. This budget chooses the path less travelled, but I do not at all underestimate, and I fully understand, the personal burden and difficulties placed upon those most affected by these budget proposals. I vow to do whatever I can to protect their livelihood too, in some other way, and I believe I've been able to do so for more than not. In the end, though, when our financial plight worsens to the point that it threatens our city’s future, nothing remains easy. Hard choices must be made, and this budget tries to do so to affect the fewest to save the many of their livelihood and services.
A mayor's budget is merely one vision, though. Should the principles of this budget be embraced, I shall begin work immediately to right this ship. But, should the Council who must approve the budget instead have other ways to trim spending an equal amount and with less pain and sacrifice, I accept their substitutions with humility and appreciation. This is the time I take the council at the word they pledged just a short while ago - if a councilor sees a better way, then please offer up something of equal or greater value. It's all too easy to point fingers at problems. Now is the time to offer true and refreshingly realistic solutions that meet the goals we all share in every possible way. I am listening, and await the Council’s substitutions and wisdom in the same sincere spirit I offer in this budget the results of the analysis of me, my team, and the councilors who have been prepared to work with me through these very difficult discussions at this challenging time.
Colin L. Read
Mayor, City of Plattsburgh