March Madness has more meanings than one, especially for our folk, mayors and municipal leaders that have gone through one of the most brutal winters in a decade or more. Our streets are heaving. Water and sewer lines are snapping with regularity. Abandoned properties have collapsed with the weight of snow and time. Our plowing, salt and overtime lines are long depleted. Let’s face it; we’ve never seen so many potholes. This past season has been disastrous for the City of Amsterdam and others like it across the state. March was mad all right. Warmer weather can’t come soon enough.
For my small city, March also marks the start of the budget process. Our Controller has assembled an un-doctored draft document of departmental requests, debt calculations and costs that we have no control over. It exceeds our cap by $1.5M. This includes the cost of pensions that went up this year by $400,000 and a bump in our health insurance bill of $900,000.
I take my place at the conference table with my most trusted staff and the balancing act begins. We identify wiggle room in some of the revenue estimates and begin going through the lines of each department, as though the myth that operating expenses are driving these astronomical increases is a reality. We all know they are not. We cannot cut pencils to get to a workable number.
I am very fortunate to have an extraordinarily talented team. We assesses the intricacies of the document with finesse and creativity. We play with the sales tax figures and increase the transfer from water to the general fund. We discover a discrepancy in the health insurance entry and remediate. We review the impact of PILOT payments and debt retirement. We propose new scenarios to produce much-needed revenues, such as providing garbage and recycling services to surrounding villages.
Over my tenure, we’ve adjusted our water and sewer rates to favor inside users. We’ve renegotiated the distribution of our sales tax allocations from the county and have arranged to receive a share of those allocations from surrounding towns by coupling them with the sale of water. We’ve restructured labor contracts and health insurance deals. We’ve taken recycling in-house, sell effluent from our wastewater plant to Madison County for a better rate, brokered an new solar energy contract, and get a cut of the action from our local “volunteer” ambulance provider, all to benefit our taxpayers.
Every year for the eight years of my term, we’ve worked to be more resourceful, more efficient, more transparent and less costly. In great measure, we’ve succeeded but as time ensues, there are less and less areas of benefit to visit. Our departments barely function with skeletal crews and aging equipment while costs soar to all-time highs. Our constituents demand more in the way of services and response, seemingly unaware of the tight constraints of our budget.
Even more worrisome, the state is deaf to our needs. The entire local juggling act is on the verge of collapse, yet every season brings a parade of sketchy programs that have us bounding over new hurdles and competing for space at the trough. This tact is neither innovative nor effective and we deserve better. We deserve MORE.
Still… March is not all madness. It’s also a time of new beginnings.
It’s time for the state to put down the whip and to pick up the olive branch. We, the members of NYCOM, come with outstretched hands bearing gifts. We bring experience, strength, ingenuity and most importantly, solutions. We are more than willing to work with the state toward our common goals.
You, dear reader, play an integral role in garnering the attention of our state representatives. Just as this month came in like a lion and looks likely to go out the same, we should lead our Pride. Use your voices to bring awareness to the plight of local municipalities. Use your contacts in the Senate, Assembly, state agencies and the media to send a message to Albany that ROARS.
After all, no one should ever ignore a hungry lion.
Mayor Ann M. Thane
for the NYCOM Municipal Bulletin, 2015 Spring Edition