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City Council gears up for possible battle with unions over benefits, fallout from COVID-19 in Geneva

This week the Geneva City Council held its May meeting. Due to COVID-19, the Council met via Zoom teleconference, but the meeting was only accessible to the public via the live broadcast from Finger Lakes Television, Ontario County’s public access television station.

As is not uncommon for the Geneva City Council, the meeting ran long. This resulted in the public being shut out of part of the meeting because Finger Lakes Television terminated its live fee of the meeting at approximately 9:22 P.M. about 1 hour and 8 minutes prior to the meeting being ended. Geneva City Manager Sage Gerling indicated that this problem will be rectified for future meetings by ensuring that the public is provided with direct access information for the Zoom meetings.

The Council spent the early portion of Wednesday’s meeting discussing the anticipated financial shortfall from COVID-19. City Manager Gerling and Assistant City Manager Adam Blowers made a presentation to the Council regarding their estimates for the expected revenue shortfall from COVID-19.

Blowers indicated that the current City of Geneva General Fund Balance was $2,940,746, which was anticipated to be 16.59% of the total 2020 budget. Blowers estimated a loss of revenue in 2020 of $598,414 and projected that there would be a gain of $209,950 from expense reductions. Consequently, Blowers estimated that the City would have to draw $388,464 from the General Fund to cover the anticipated revenue shortfall for 2020.

Blowers also stated that the Water Fund had a balance of $1,036,241, which was 24.57% of the 2020 budget. He estimated the projected loss in revenue for the Water Fund to be $817,293. Blowers also estimated that the City would be able to make up $145,434 of this shortfall through expense reductions, resulting in a $671,859 draw on the Water Fund during 2020.

Blowers also told the Council that the Sewer Fund had a balance of $1, 239,577, which was 24.38% of the 2020 budget. The estimated loss in revenue to the Sewer Fund was put at $800,313. Blowers estimated that the City could make up $146,651 of this shortfall through expense reductions, resulting in a draw on the fund of $653,662 in 2020.

If accurate, these projections would leave the General Fund with a balance of $2,552,283, the Water Fund with a balance of $364,382, and the Sewer Fund with a balance of $585,915 at the close of the 2020 budget year. Blowers stated that staff thought the estimated ending General Fund Balance was sufficient. However, he also stated that the estimated Water and Sewer Fund balances were low and that the City would need to take steps over the next several years to build these funds back up to an acceptable level.

City Manager Gerling informed the Council that the city would attempt to achieve the estimated expenditure savings via a freeze on discretionary spending, and a hiring freeze that would forgo hiring seasonal staff. Gerling has established a goal of achieving the necessary expenditure reductions while avoiding layoffs. Gerling indicated that additional options for weathering the COVID-19 financial crisis include fund transfers between funds and negotiating benefit concessions with employee unions.

This presentation ignited a lively discussion among the Council. Many Council members, particularly Councilmembers John Pruett (Ward 6) and Ken Camera (Ward 4) did not believe that staff’s estimates accounted for the full range of potential negative financial impacts from COVID-19. In addition, Councilmembers were also very concerned that the City was not doing enough to cut expenditures. Pruett questioned whether the City should halt capital projects and suggested that it was necessary to “right-size government” in the face of this financial crisis.

Camera passionately argued that the City must more aggressively pursue expenditure cuts and service consolidation to ensure that the City is able to weather the financial crisis. Camera specifically stated that “we must ask more of our employees than just no layoffs”. Camera argued that City employees should be asked to be more flexible on job assignments, forgo raises slated for 2021, and to forgo some benefit payouts.

This led to a discussion in which many Councilmembers pushed for the City to pursue having employees forgo benefit buyouts such as the contractually negotiated buyouts for vacation and sick leave. Many Counselors felt that these benefits, particularly in light of the current COVID-19 financial crisis, are excessive and out of step with benefits packages offered in the private sector. Among the suggestions, Councilmember William Pealer (Ward 2) proposed that insurance coverage buyouts be limited to the cost of the cheapest single plan regardless of which plan the employee would be entitled to if they elected to keep insurance coverage with the City. Councilmember Laura Salamendra (Ward 5) went as far as to say that the City should look at making fewer program cuts to protect the community and small businesses in order to protect the City’s tax base. She suggested that if additional staff cuts were necessary to avoid program cuts the staff cuts should come from the Police Department. Councilmember Tom Burrall (Ward 1) specifically stated that he has never been a fan of unions and that municipal employees have a “pretty rosy job”.

The discussion was at times very impassioned. At one point, Mayor Valentino had to repeatedly call Councilmember Camera out of order to get him to end making his point repeatedly and to stop a brewing argument between Camera and Salamendra. Ultimately, while the Council clearly wants staff to be more aggressive in their estimates and their cost-cutting measures. In addition, although the Council wants to avoid layoffs, they are also expecting employees to make sacrifices in order to get the City through the COVID-19 financial crisis.

In official action, the Council first considered a resolution to appoint the law firm of Hancock Eastabrook LLC as special legal counsel for the City. The resolution was presented because the firm has been conducting work for the City on specialized and complex matters for some time without formal authorization from the Council. Councilmember Camera asked that there be a policy that Council be notified each time the City hires special counsel identifying the subject matter that the special counsel will be used for along with an estimation of the number of hours that will be required. After discussion it was moved to table the resolution until it could be redrafted to provide the necessary procedures for assigning projects to the special counsel, notifying the Council of the assignments and anticipated costs, and a provision clarifying that the agreement with the City and Hancock Eastabrook LLC would not be an exclusive agreement. The motion to table was approved unanimously.

The Council also considered three resolutions related to the $1.8 million Green Innovation Grant Program. This grant would allow the City to implement green infrastructure projects throughout the City. The three resolutions the Council considered authorized the City Manager to execute the grant contract, authorized the local match funding, and implemented required classification of green projects along Routes 5 & 20. City Manager Gerling clarified for the Council that the City’s required funding match was already funded through the Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI). The resolutions were passed unanimously.

A resolution was also presented to schedule a public hearing for June 3, 2020, to obtain input regarding applications for Federal Community Development Block Grant Program funds to assist two local businesses with relocation and expansion activities. In addition, in connection with this resolution, the Council considered a resolution to sell a vacant parcel of land in the Geneva Industrial Park at Forge Ave-West to CCMI, Inc. for $70,000. City manager Gerling clarified that the City would receive 1/3 of the sales price. Both resolutions passed unanimously.

The Council also considered a resolution seeking compensation from Ontario County for the negative odor and truck traffic impacts suffered by the City of Geneva as a result of the Ontario County Landfill. Councilmember Camera introduced the resolution and indicated that it came about because of the persistent problems caused by the landfill including roughly 946 odor complaints over about 14-15 month period. Camera sees the resolution as the starting point of getting the County to address this issue with some level of seriousness. After some brief discussion of the need for the resolution was passed unanimously.

City Manager Gerling presented a resolution for the Council’s consideration to approve a 5-year lease at $1 per year to permit BluePrint Geneva to lease property on Crystal Street for the purpose of operating a community garden. Gerling indicated that the proposed agreement would not prevent the City from developing the property during the 5 year lease period should opportunities arise. Several Councilmembers expressed concerns regarding potential liability issues due to possible soil contamination on the property. After ascertaining that BluePrint Geneva would test the soil and use raised grow beds if contaminants were found, and receiving assurances that City Manager Gerling and Assistant City Manager Blowers would ensure that all liability issues were addressed in any executed lease agreement, the Council voted unanimously to authorize the City Manager to enter into the lease agreement.

The Council was next scheduled to consider a first reading of a proposed ordinance to authorize the keeping of chickens within the City of Geneva. However, after realizing that the ordinance’s proposed language had not been distributed to Council or the public, and after realizing that the public no longer had access to view the meeting because the live feed of the meeting had ended because the meeting had run too long, the Council elected to table all further business on the agenda until the next meeting so that public would have an opportunity to observe the proceedings and review and comment on the proposed language for the chicken-keeping ordinance.