Geneva budget

City Manager Sage Gerling discusses the budget with City Council members in 2018. Budget discussions for the 2020 fiscal year are underway.

GENEVA — Former city of Geneva supervisor Charlie Evangelista stood before Council earlier this fall and implored his government to find ways to cut spending and taxes.

Without reducing the size and price of city government, warned Evangelista, who now serves as Democratic commissioner for the Ontario County Board of Elections, Geneva will not be able to attract the development it needs to grow the tax base.

Council made a start on that effort this past week, adopting a $17.43 million general fund spending plan for 2019, a number reached after Council cut $219,000 in a raucous session Wednesday.

The session featured a number of 11th-hour cuts proposed by Council members, some of them aimed at the city’s Office of Neighborhood Initiatives, for which City Manager Sage Gerling has served as director.

The tax levy — the amount to be raised by taxes — is nearly $6.98 million, a 2.24 percent decrease from the 2018 levy of $7.14 million.

The tax rate for 2019 is $17.26 per thousand of assessed value, a 3.14 percent decrease from the 2018 rate of $17.80. Assistant City Manager/Comptroller Adam Blowers said the tax cut will result in $54 in annual savings for a property assessed at $100,000.

Adding in the water and sewer budgets — which will see no rate increases in 2019 — total spending is $27.01 million, compared to $26.41 million in 2018. That’s about a 2.3 percent increase.

Taking aim at a city department

While the $219,000 cut in spending from the proposed budget is relatively significant, it could have been more. Among the proposals that either got shot down or were modified included eliminating funding for the Office of Neighborhood Initiatives director job, as well as a communications/marketing position paid for in a contract with Rhonda Destino.

“I don’t like the idea of hiring a director of ONI,” said Sixth Ward Democrat John Greco, who suggested it should go unfilled or reduced to part-time.

“That’s a lot of money we could save,” said Greco.

It was suggested that Gerling and Blowers could share some ONI duties, a proposal that appeared to frustrate Gerling, who in succeeding longtime City Manager Matt Horn was overseeing her first city budget.

Mayor Ron Alcock supported holding off on a hire for the director job “because I’m not sure what the ONI does,” he said.

Questions focused on whether the department’s mission is neighborhood development and resident engagement, economic development, or both.

“There’s no measurable data for this department in terms of what we’re getting,” said Alcock, who said he’d rather see an economic development team, “and let’s staff it accordingly.”

But Alcock, a Republican, was not done there. He also called for eliminating the communications/marketing contract position. The city pays Destino $66,000 for her services.

Democratic council members Steve Valentino of Ward 3 and Jason Hagerman of Ward 5 both opposed the changes.

“You’re stripping the ability of this staff” said Valentino “and asking them to do more with less. Eventually they’re going to say, ‘I don’t need this,’ and move on.”

Alcock disagreed.

“My concern is with the taxpayers,” he said. “The employees of this city are paid very well.”

Ultimately, Council decided to keep the ONI director position as a part-time job after a resolution offered by At-Large Councilor Gordy Eddington to not fund the job in 2019 failed on a 5-4 vote. Voting in favor of not funding the job were Eddington, Ward 4 Ken Camera, Ward 2 Councilor Paul D’Amico and Alcock.

In two subsequent resolutions, Council voted to make the ONI director part-time and set 2019 funding at $43,000.

It’s possible that instead of hiring a part-time director, which would mean a 17 1/2-hour job, according to state civil service law, the city might contract out for ONI-related services.

Gerling said Friday that she is still developing a plan in light of the reduced funding.

The communications/marketing outside contractor position was also retained after a resolution to abolish it failed in a 5-4 vote. Voting to keep the position were Hagerman, Camera, Valentino, At-Large Councilor Mark Gramling and Ward 1 Councilor Angelina Marino.

Hagerman said the proposed cuts were “extremely unfair to the city manager.”

Valentino, with a second from Hagerman, tried to hold off adoption of the budget until Council’s Nov. 7 meeting, so that the public could see the cuts that were made. That was defeated on a 5-4 vote as well, with D’Amico, Eddington, Greco, Camera and Alcock voting no.

Council ultimately approved the spending plan, with Hagerman and Valentino voting against it.

In response to an email sent Thursday by the Finger Lakes Times to all councilors for comment on the budget proceedings, Hagerman said he was “extremely unhappy with this budget and will make a statement at the November meeting. I feel we’ve handcuffed the city manager. And I feel it’s sexism at work — this level of scrutiny was never applied to Matt’s budgets.”

D’Amico said the work isn’t done.

“I would say that I appreciate all the councilors who drilled down the initial budget presented to create a much-needed cut in taxes,” he said. “I don’t think we did enough. Tough decisions need to be made. Some councilors were ready to make them.”

He also urged Council to articulate priorities to Gerling and Blowers.

“Sometimes they don’t match up,” he said. “We were able to prioritize in prior years during our three-day retreat. We will be having one again this year in November. It’s a shorter version that I do not believe can be effective. One day. I will be talking to the mayor asking for expansion. I’m willing to spend as much time as needed to create clear direction and clear priorities. We do have a new CM and it will take a little time for everyone to adjust.”

D’Amico said to expect a deeper dive into city spending next year as well.

“Next year I’m hoping to be part of additional tax relief for our overtaxed property owners,” he said. “It’s a good start, but we have a lot more work to do. Our tax rate is too high.”

Camera complimented the work of Gerling, Blowers and City Clerk Doris Myers, who he said were “fantastic throughout the most difficult budget season I have ever experienced during my seven years on City Council. …Throughout this budget season they were truly professional and patient and sharp, which confirmed CC’s choice that they are the best team we could have running this city.”

And while Gerling appeared somewhat frustrated at Council proceedings Wednesday that included dismantling her former job, she is apparently looking ahead.

“I am proud of city staff for their efforts during the budget process,” she said in an emailed statement. “We take seriously our role in co-creating a wonderful place to live, work and play for and with our residents and also being good stewards of their financial contribution to city operations.”

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