GENEVA — In late September, Sage Gerling, our great new City Manager, presented her first proposed budget to the City Council and the public.
At $17.7 million, at first blush, it looked like a solid, conservative plan. The tax rate won’t rise. Police and fire, rightly, are a priority. New Downtown Revitalization projects will begin unfolding. All good. An easy 9-0 council vote, right?
Unfortunately, this plan is not truly a zero budget and it comes at a time when, frankly, zero isn’t good enough. The tax rate may remain the same, but taxes — the amount local people actually pay for services — will increase by more than 4.2 percent. In 2018 we are on track to spend $16,989,130 and the new 2019 budget is projected to spend $17,708,550.
For all the good news generated by recent state investment in our city, Geneva remains in a property tax crisis. Taxes continue to stifle growth and fuel a pernicious cycle that discourages new investment. Up until the announcement of the solar village earlier this year, new home building and commercial development, with few exceptions, largely occurred outside city limits.
So as the usually routine discussions of city finance occur this year, I offer these steps toward better fiscal health:
• The Council should direct Gerling and her finance team to return to the drawing board and bring back a budget that holds the budget at last year’s funding level.
• Then Gerling and her team should strive to make another 4 percent cut in the 2020 budget, making it an 8 percent cut in City taxes in two years — reasonable and doable, and an acknowledgment that the City needs to get its finances under control.
The good news is that I believe this goal is achievable without significantly reducing essential city services. My Council colleagues may have additional ideas, but here are a couple areas where savings are available:
• Even amid the millions about to be spent on the substantial Downtown Revitalization program, the city is poised to spend close to $1.4 million (of its own money) to add more boat slips to its lakefront marina concept. This expenditure would be made even as dozens of boat berths around the northern end of Seneca Lake remain unrented and unused (including our own). We have an excellent independent analysis performed by a local resident in the tourism business that calls into question the need for expanding marina services on our side of the north end of the lake and the revenue that can be generated.
• A full examination of our Recreation budget shows more than $1 million spent each year, much of it on a skating rink that requires a substantial taxpayer subsidy. The City should consider substantially reducing the size of the Recreation Department to a purely administrative role and then contracting with local non-profits to supply essential recreation services at much lower cost.
• There are other initiatives that can be examined related to other City services including fire and possibly the police that would provide opportunities to reduce taxes without compromising public safety.
The current proposed budget document does not provide by itself the needed data required to make decisions about dynamic activities such as marina investments and recreation department operations.
In both cases, City Councilors need stand-alone benefit cost analyses about these specific activities that include all the assumptions about revenue and cost plus market projections of revenue based on real data so that we can clearly and effectively evaluate the funding request.
Lower taxes and a growing tax base will spur development and increase city coffers but not at the expense of already overburdened local property owners.
If we can’t take decisive action now, when the economy is good and jobs are more plentiful, the next economic downturn may undo much of the gains we are seeing throughout our city. Good times make tough choices easier.