It seems that every week there is a new example of local government failure resulting in taxpayer loss or unnecessary, excess spending. For rural communities such as those in the Finger Lakes, every dollar counts; and when it comes to long-term sustainability, it’s crucial for every dollar to count.
That’s why planning is so important.
That’s also why it’s shocking to see repeated local examples of mismanagement, or blind budgeting, to put it more diplomatically.
Let’s look first at the Town of Seneca Falls, a community in the north end of Seneca County, which for all of the good happening around it, has not been able to leverage it to the taxpayers’ benefit.
First, there’s the “tripling” of property taxes as it was reported at the time. We learned over the next two years that the increase was close to 60 percent and at the same time, that elected leaders apparently had no interest in undoing it.
We’re entering a new budget season, and taxes are expected to stay “roughly flat” if the proposed draft budget is approved after some kind of workshop process. That means taxes for those living in the Town of Seneca Falls will stay roughly 60 percent higher than they were three years ago.
They will stay that way without a long-term vision or public accounting of desperately needed infrastructure upgrades. They also will stay that way without an accounting or auditing of the millions of dollars that have passed through the general fund without an identified purpose.
The Town likely will hold workshops, but if residents do not attend those meetings, the town board will pass whatever budget fits its fancy, despite repeated failures in budgeting. To make matters worse, three members of the current board will not even be onboard come Jan. 1 to be held accountable for the budget.
That’s important. Recent history reminds us that town officials have used the “date” of their election as a means to escape responsibility for decisions made by the board-at-large. “Well, I took office when that budget was enacted, and didn’t have input,” is the argument; and even as practical as that may seem, it’s not a means of evading responsibility years later.
You’re responsible for the problems you inherit not just the ones you create while elected.
Let’s now look at a report published by New York Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office after an audit of the Waterloo Central School District. That report read boldly, “The Board Did Not Adopt Realistic Budgets and Was Not Transparent When Funding Reserves.”
Auditors wrote, “The Board and District officials need to improve budgeting practices to ensure that budgets are realistic and avoid generating excessive surpluses.” They compared appropriations and estimated revenues with actual operating results from 2015-19 and found that revenues were budgeted reasonably but appropriations were overestimated by $9.3 million.
Typically, less is best when it comes to municipal budgeting. However, overfunding reserves, and not being transparent in formulating a plan to spend down surpluses — if they aren’t going to be used to directly lower taxes — is just as bad as overspending and overtaxing. Given these two examples, it’s clear that from the state’s perspective, they are equally bad practices.
Let’s not forget, the Town of Seneca Falls was hit hard in its own state audit. Auditors found a lack of policies and institutional controls, which allowed for excessive spending at the budget level and even on day-to-day operation.
Budgets have to be a process, and residents have to be part of it — even if they aren’t busting the doors down to be part of local meetings. Officials, elected and otherwise, have a responsibility to do right by taxpayers.
Here’s what I think is the important point and takeaway for all municipalities: While there is a lot of talk at the state level about controlling spend locally, sharing services to reduce cost, and maintain spending caps, there needs to be significantly more emphasis put on not allowing boards — elected or otherwise — to blindly move taxpayer dollars around without a plan.
In lieu of a strategic, comprehensive plan to utilize general funds or surpluses, municipalities should be mandated to return those funds to taxpayers through overall reductions. If a board refuses to come up with a comprehensive plan to address tax dollars and where they should go, that entity should not be gifted the right to continue collecting them into perpetuity.