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October 18, 2009 - Ray Hall (Archive)
Municipalities across New York State are wrestling with budgets and property tax considerations in arguably the worst economy since the Great Depression. The Buffalo News did a series of reports on the recession hitting Town Halls in Erie County. Three of Erie County’s largest Town Governments have filed preliminary 2010 budgets that carries the imprint of an angry summer of taxpayer protests accompanied by the effects of a deep recession. Proposed municipal budgets reflect a gloomy outlook.

According to the News Amherst, one of the wealthiest Towns in western New York, is planning layoffs and Cheektowaga and Orchard Park have not included money for raises for union contracts. Evans Supervisor Francis J. Pordum said voters’ have demanded tax relief and that the town will not increase services or get any new equipment this year.

Town Supervisors are acutely aware that chronically unemployed taxpayers or those employed who have gone without pay raises don’t relish the idea of paying more taxes for government workers who have top benefits and pensions. Orchard Park Supervisor Mary Travers Murphy believes that it’s unfair to taxpayers who are bankrolling [benefits and pensions]. “Especially when the total compensation packages are skyrocketing,” she said. The Orchard Park Supervisor also said that experts have advised the town the only way to decrease costs is by shrinking the workforce.

The Town of Amherst is looking at a $118 million budget proposed by Supervisor Satish Mohan that cuts 51 jobs, freezes wages of all nonunion workers and marginally reduces property taxes. Mohan said such extreme measures were necessary to close an $8 million budget gap that would otherwise be made up by a 10 percent increase in the tax levy. The Town Board approved a special buyout offer for longterm, high paid employees and voted not to fill 13 vacant positions. In Cheektowaga Town Supervisor Mary F. Holtz told town workers that her 2010 budget did not include pay raises for any municipal employees. Two of the town’s union contracts have expired and the others will expire at the end of the year. Supervisor Holtz has also proposed employees contribute more toward health insurance costs.

Pension costs appear to be the primary component driving up costs for local governments, as much as a 50% increase statewide and an equal increase for police pensions. That coupled with anemic growth in state sales tax revenues have forced some local governments into draconian budget cuts and some towns are scrapping planned capital projects.

Deep budget cuts are more of a recent phenomenon for the usually affluent South Towns (wasn’t it Amherst that voted down a Wal-Mart) than in our part of Western New York. Supervisors in Erie County released their proposed budgets with a sense of insistent necessity, urgency even foreboding.

In Jamestown the Mayor’s proposed budget was in sharp contrast to those in Erie County and generated surprisingly little comment. However, no one should believe that Jamestown is now better off financially than Towns in Erie County. Jamestown’s proposed budget did not slash jobs or call for shorter work weeks or the elimination of pay raises. The proposed budget carried a property tax increase of $1.50 per thousand which if approved would increase the tax rate to $20.62 per thousand.

The Mayor did say in his message to the City Council that downsizing in previous years had taken the pressure off the 2010 budget. He pointed out that recently settled labor contracts resulted in increased employee contributions to health and dental plans and that tighter management ( a euphemism for rationed health care) of retiree benefits helped contain costs, all prudent steps.

A bright spot in the Mayor’s budget message was a $166,000 increase in the city’s taxable assessment--the city’s collective property assets. A very modest increase to be sure, one that represents less than $3,000 in actual cash for the city, but it indicates a positive trend. The Mayor points out that it is the fifth increase in assessed value in the last six years and reverses 13 years of decline.

Mayor Teresi’s assertion that we have taken our hits in previous years coincides with history. Jamestown is probably still recovering from previous recessions and the city has gone through several agonizing budget processes. However, in worsening economic conditions the poor are always the first, the hardest hit and the last to recover. A precursor of more hard times for Jamestown might have been in a story in Saturday’s Post Journal. The lead story was about how the recession and the earlier market collapse has forced charitable foundations that fund many local nonprofits to insist recipients implement severely simple business models that force personnel reductions--layoffs.

Mayor Teresi’s proposed budget now becomes the responsibility of Jamestown’s legislative branch, the City Council. The City Council could adopt it as is and raise property taxes, however, if history is an indicator that seems unlikely. Where will they cut?

The Mayor has already made cuts in the non-profits, the Library and Fenton Historical Society as well as some senior citizen spending. Will this be the year Council eliminates all nonprofit contributions and abolishes the Youth Bureau?

Will the City Council resort to lay offs--reduce police or fire or road workers? These are difficult decisions. Council members know when jobs are cut a real person loses his or her livelihood. The fact that it is hard to get another job in the toughest economy most of us have ever experienced makes it personal. Budget decisions are never easy.

Citizens can march on Washington, attend Town Hall meetings and complain to Albany, but remember; GOOD GOVERNMENT BEGINS AT HOME. Now is the time to exercise what citizenship requires. Make no mistake, nine members of the city council will carve out a budget with or without your opinion; that is their duty. Whatever your thoughts on the budget, now is the time to share your thoughts with local council members.


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