Whether you’re in Seneca Falls or Geneva or any other place with property taxes in New York state, you know that budget discussions and election time always focus on how much money local governments are spending and on what.

In Geneva, the budgeting task should be easier (in theory) because the unanimously adopted comprehensive plan lays out the community values and goals that residents’ tax dollars should be in service to. This is true of both the town and the city, where plans were completed and updated in the past two years and continue to be living documents reflective of broad community engagement. However, whereas the town of Geneva has a board that clearly uses the plan as a template for decision-making, it appears that many members of Geneva City Council seem unaware that such a plan exists. As a result, they give the city manager mixed messages about how to create the budget document, which isn’t fair to her or to the residents.

City Council abandoned the outcome-based budget model a while back in favor of line-item accounting, and in doing so skewed the discussion of budgeting into territory that they are less-qualified to examine and not effectively able to manage. For instance, the council liaison to the Recreation Advisory Committee, Mr. Pealer, has repeatedly lamented the lack of activities for kids and for seniors, yet he has favored a line-item budget that doesn’t specify clear priorities and outcomes for how the funds are spent. The lessons of the city’s very useful Citizens Budget Academy seem to have been lost at the Council table.

For instance, Mr. Pealer is joined by some colleagues in proposing lump-sum donations to the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva and Geneva Family YMCA, places that have existing youth and senior programming. While I support those agencies and their work, the proposal (to give $22,500 to each) violates New York state law. Municipalities are not allowed to give tax dollars as charitable gifts, no matter how wonderful the programs may be. Instead, the city is required to agree on an outcome, to publicly state that its existing staff cannot make that outcome happen, and then enter into a contract with an outside agency for that specific project, program, or outcome and pay only what it costs to run it. Picking a number and calling it a donation just doesn’t pass muster.

The law requires that residents be notified of the particular items or activities that the city has determined it cannot provide itself and the cost of having those things performed by contracting agencies. This is about transparency and accountability. The New York State Comptroller’s Division of Local Government has a budget guide for local elected officials that explains this in great detail and could help guide Mr. Pealer and others dissatisfied with the state of the City’s Recreation Department pursue their alternate solutions in a legal, open, and responsible way.

Geneva’s comprehensive plan states that all decisions (especially budgetary) shall be made with an eye toward making the city “beautiful, prosperous, equitable, connected, and sustainable.” A return to outcome-based budgeting that focuses on achieving those objectives would help provide a framework for tough financial decisions. For instance, residents have spoken loud and clear about the need for more code enforcement that not only improves the appearance of structures and addresses so-called “zombie properties,” but also ensures better living conditions. In an outcome-based budget, code enforcement, fire department inspections, Business Improvement District work, and some Public Works projects would be presented as a package aimed at making Geneva more beautiful and equitable, instead of being presented in different department line-item silos where Council might make a proposal to trim a line back without realizing the negative impact on the community’s stated goals. It would also help the city manager guide alterations to her budget proposal in a way that makes clear to Council the trade-offs of one choice over another.

Right now, she is being forced to approach changes in a haphazard way because Council cannot decide if it wants to micromanage line items or actually budget for priorities.

In Seneca Falls, a company headquartered out of state is dumping money into local elections to focus on one line item: the money Seneca Meadows pays to pollute. In Geneva, City Council is fighting over line items, but the problem is the same: Numbers are just a proxy for the real issues.

Does Seneca Falls want to be the trash capital of the mid-Atlantic or does it want to someday enjoy clean air and less risk of pollution? Does Geneva want to do things the way they’ve always been done or give taxpayers the best return on their investment in accordance with the stated community values?

Budgets must be about the big picture. If governing bodies can be clear about what they want, and re-frame discussions in that way, the rest will follow.

Jackie Augustine lives with her three children in Geneva, where she served on City Council for 16 years. An ethics instructor at Keuka College, she is also co-director of the Seneca7 relay race. Her “Doing the Write Thing” column appears every other Tuesday. Email her at writethingcolumn@gmail.com.

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