Below is an Op-Ed I wrote that will be published in the Star Gazette on April 15, 2018. It can be found online here.
At the Chemung County Legislature’s meeting last Monday, County Executive Tom Santulli and Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen proposed an initiative called the “Municipal Fiscal Transparency and Tax Stabilization Plan.” Based on their presentation, it appears the plan’s purpose is to help municipalities improve their fiscal health.
This is a laudable objective. The City of Elmira’s financial problems have been widely discussed recently.
But, Elmira is not alone. The Town of Horseheads levied a property tax in 2016 for the first time in 30 years, the Village of Van Etten voted last December to dissolve, Town of Southport Supervisor David Sheen recently stated his board will likely have to raise taxes in the near future as it has “controlled expenses while seeing its revenues dry up,” and this past week, the Town of Chemung laid off its entire highway department, citing lack of adequate funds.
Although many factors contributed to this difficult situation, there is only one viable solution going forward — genuine cooperation. Unfortunately, the proposed plan is not the way to get there.
At its core, the plan calls for the re-creation of a Council of Governments, an inter-municipal body that existed more than a decade ago to help facilitate cooperation among Chemung County’s municipalities.
This is a good thing. In fact, re-creating a Council of Governments is something I have written about in this newspaper and on a blog I created called Chemung County Matters (chemungcountymatters.com). However, the Council of Governments envisioned under the proposed plan comes with a catch.
At the onset, Santulli stated Monday that the City of Elmira will not be invited to participate. Although Krusen backed off these statements to some degree in subsequent written public comments, it is clear that anything less than full participation by the city is enough to render the plan flawed.
Moreover, the plan includes the establishment of an emergency reserve fund of $400,000 that will grow over time and be made available to members of the Council of Governments that abide by certain “rules.”
Some rules regarding financial transparency and disclosure of financial statements make sense and are unlikely to face substantial pushback.
However, other rules are more onerous. The plan would dictate how projects are funded. Such decisions fall squarely within the discretion of elected municipal leaders rather than county officials. Specifically, Santulli and Krusen stated that municipalities would be encouraged — even required — to bond major purchases, something that results in interest payments and is at odds with how some municipalities choose to do business. Furthermore, municipalities would have to keep their ratio of reserve fund to annual budget below the ratio maintained by Chemung County, interfering with their abilities to protect against unforeseen expenditures.
A broad perspective is necessary to evaluate what this plan seeks to do. Rather than promote the kind of cooperation we need, this plan would place elected municipal leaders in the unenviable position of choosing whether to make what they believe are the best financial decisions for the people they represent, or cede that power by agreeing to the Council of Government’s rules in order to be eligible to receive money through the emergency reserve.
There certainly may be times when the rules echo what municipal leaders believe is the right thing — but it is equally possible there will be times when the rules work against what is in their constituents’ interests. Cooperation is about bringing people to the table to work together. This plan simply misses the mark.