Geneva City Council held a budget work session on Wednesday as it considered the financial future of the municipality in Ontario County. The Council met in person at a location that was not disclosed on the meeting notice or agenda.
However, the meeting was streamed live for City residents via the City’s YouTube Channel. Because the Council sat around a large table wearing masks with what appeared to be limited audio pickup, Councilor’s voices were often muffled and occasionally difficult to understand. The Council continued its practice of not captioning the meeting for those with hearing impairments. The budget work session was a follow-up to the September 24th presentation of the 2021 proposed budget conducted by City Manager Sage Gerling and Assistant City Manager Adam Blowers.
The proposed budget indicated that the City anticipated a 20% reduction in state aid, a 20% reduction in sales and use tax revenue, and a 44% reduction in occupancy tax revenue caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
The 2021 proposed budget called for a 4% increase in water rates, and a 2.5% increase in sewer rates. The proposed 2021 budget purported to have a 0% general fund tax rate increase. However, property owners in the City faced an effective property tax increase of roughly 13%. This tax rate increase would occur because of a recent property reassessment that significantly increased the value of City properties. The City initially planned to reduce the property tax rate to lessen or even eliminate the impact of the reassessment. However, because of the COVID-19 revenue reductions, the 2021 proposed budget called for maintaining the property tax rate at $17.17 per $1,000 in assessed value. Given the level of increased property value, this resulted in a roughly 13% increase in 2021 estimated property tax revenue to the City, which many called a 13% property tax increase.
The proposed budget sought to limit the impact of the COVID-19 revenue reductions by reducing general fund spending by $600,000, reduced staff costs via a decline in staffing levels, by proposing no new capital projects for 2021, by limited deferred maintenance, and by limited support of partner agencies.
Wednesday’s budget work session was intended to give Councilors an opportunity to ask City staff questions regarding the proposed budget and make recommendations regarding the budget’s content. The Council will hold a public hearing on the Budget on October 7, 2020, and has scheduled additional Council budget work sessions for October 14th, 21st, and 28th. However, the Council can elect to pass an official 2021 budget at any time following the October 7, 2020, public hearing.
Two themes emerged from Wednesday’s work session. First, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, many on the Council remained frustrated with the fact that City employees were not being asked to forgo salary increases. The Council seemed to want to ignore the City’s contractual obligations under union contracts and called for City staff to work towards blocking all salary increases in 2021. Councilor Jan Regan (Ward 3) stated that she did not think that anyone should be getting a raise this year. She wanted the salary increase issue addressed by the budget even if it was only a “symbolic” response. Councilor Ken Camera (Ward 4) asked if raises could be suspending pending the COVID-19 budget crisis and then reinstated after the crisis passed. Councilor Tom Burrall (Ward 1) echoed the sentiment that salaries should be frozen. In arguing that City employees should share the pain of the economic impact of COVID-19 Burrall stated that “Businesses are not responsible for balancing the budget of any employee’s household…it is the employee’s responsibility to balance their own budget in their own life circumstances”. Burrall also argued that the City had failed economics by giving raises to employees when business was bad. Both Burrall and Camera questioned City staff’s level of aggressiveness on limiting employee salary increases. Camera went as far as to openly call out city staff by saying “Staff is not aggressive enough and doesn’t think outside of the box”. Camera also likened staff forgoing salary increases to taking a loan out to cover the revenue shortfall.
The Council’s second consistent theme was that they called for no increase to sewer and water rates, and for a 2, 3, or 4% reduction in the effective property tax rate increase.
Councilor Laura Salamendra (Ward 5) felt that the water and sewer rate increases were unfair to renters as this cost is passed on to renters by landlords. Mayor Steve Valentino countered that the increase is actually fairer because it is spread out among all residents and is paid by those outside the City who also received water and sewer services.
Councilor William Pealer (Ward 2) said that he would rather cover the revenue shortfall with a loan instead of with a property tax increases and water and sewer rate increases. He also indicated that he wants City residents to see the benefits of the increased value of their homes rather than that equity being eaten up by property tax increases. Councilor Anthony Noone (At-Large) stated that it was unfair to ask residents to pay more for water, sewer, and property taxes when their budgets are also “strapped” and limited because of COVID-19. Councilor Frank Gaglianese (At-large) and Regan also echoed similar concerns and called for holding the line on rate and tax increases.
Blowers clarified for the Council that had the City not experienced the revenue reductions caused by COVID-19, staff would have presented a proposed budget that would have kept the property tax level flat despite the assessment increase. It was also indicated that the water and sewer rate increases would have also likely have been avoided without COVID-19.
The Council spent significant time in questioning three areas of the budget, police, fire, and shared services. Salamendra led off the discussion by questioning the police department’s expenditures of $150,000 for overtime expenses and $20 for firearms. Salamendra wanted the overtime expenditures cut from the budget and presented as a separate budget amendment as incurred. Geneva Police Chief Michael Passalacqua clarified that overtime expenses were an ongoing cost created by the need to fill shifts when officers were out due to illness, injury, or other unforeseen circumstances. Passalacqua also stated that the Department attempts to control overtime costs by allowing officers to switch shifts within the same pay periods. Passalacqua also clarified that the Department currently only has 33 officers (2 vacancies and 1 suspension) and that overtime expenditures could potentially be further controlled if the Department was fully staffed at 36 officers.
Salamendra also stated that she thought the $20,000 expenditure for firearms was too high given that they are rarely used and questioned whether Geneva wanted to be a city that spent money on guns and ammo rather than other social programs. Passalacqua clarified that the $20,000 firearms line item is for firearms training that is mandated in order to maintain the Department’s accreditation. Ultimately, Passalacqua indicated that the Department actually had very little discretion in its expenditures and that the department’s discretion was limited to slightly more than $100,000 in administrative costs.
Salamendra also questioned the Fire Department’s expenditures for overtime, Assistant Chiefs, and $44,000 for the City’s three volunteer fire departments. Fire Department Chief Michael Combs told the Council that the overtime expenses are necessary to fill operational needs to staff equipment during callouts/emergencies, account for absences due to illnesses and injuries, and to account for fill-ins when firefighters have to attend trainings or substitute for the Code Enforcement Officer. Combs also stated that the Assistant Chief expenditure is necessary because at least one Assistant Chief responds to every call to ensure that there is a supervisory presence at the scene. Finally, Combs explained that the $44,000 for the volunteer fire departments assists these volunteers in purchasing equipment to fight fires, and helps the departments fund volunteer recruitment and fund insurance for their volunteer firefighters.
Burrall questioned how the $44,000 for the volunteer fire departments was spent. In an effort to point out a need for accountability for these expenditures, Burrall questioned if the fire departments had “beer parties” to recruit new members. Combs took exception with Burrall’s beer party remark but indicated that the volunteer departments do not provide the City with details on how they spend the money they receive from the City. Blowers confirmed that this was standard for how the City handles these types of grants to other partner agencies. Camera echoed Burrall’s concerns regarding the lack of documentation of how the $44,000 was spent and stated that he was concerned about the whole fire department model of continuing to do things the way it had always been done. Camera went as far as to call on the City to require the volunteer fire departments to retroactively account for how they had been spending the money given to them by the City.
Several Councilors also raised the issue that the City should pressure other jurisdictions, such as the Town of Geneva, to pay their “fair share” for shared services such as water and sewer services. Councilor John Pruett (Ward 6) called on the City to stop paying for the school crossing guard because he believed that this expense was the responsibility of the school district, rather than the City. Pruett also felt that the school district was more than adequately funded to pay for this expense. Pruett also asked about the school district’s contribution towards the School Resource Officer (SRO) position, which Blowers stated was 80% funded by the school district. Regan asked about getting other jurisdictions to contribute towards shared fire services. Chief Combs cautioned that having the fire department respond to calls in other jurisdictions on a regular basis would increase the City’s costs. Salamendra contended that the City should be much more aggressive in getting other jurisdictions to pay their share of the costs for the water and sewer system.
Councilor’s also questioned whether or not the City was achieving the maximum possible cost savings on health insurance expenses. City staff indicated that the City’s cost for health insurance this year went up only slightly over 4% which was significantly lower than other municipalities, which are seeing increases in excess of 10%. City staff also indicated that the City had joined 18 other municipalities in the Finger Lakes Health Insurance Trust to increase the City’s buying power.
Camera pushed the Council to reconsider funding the marina project, which he wants on the next Council meeting’s agenda.
Despite the Council’s consistent push to eliminate increases in water and sewer rates and to limit or reduce any potential property tax increases, several councilors still proposed new spending. Camera proposed an extra $50,000 for additional facilities at the Vermiculture Center. Pruett wanted to continue with purchasing a new aerial fire truck to replace the fire department’s current truck. Several Councilor’s called for funding for Colony Caregivers to help fund the cost of controlling the City’s stray cat population. Pealer expressed concerns about the reduction in the recreation budget. Finally, Pruett also called for providing funding directly to the Shade Tree Committee for the development of a shade tree nursery. Pruett was concerned that the Shade Tree Committee feels it does not have any power to implement its ideas because the committee has no budget of its own.
The meeting was contentious at times. Salamendra questioned whether anyone had listened to some of her questions. Camera became incensed that Valentino tried to keep him on point regarding budget issues and then went on further than he had initially planned because of the rebuke. Pealer at one point asked for a point of order to get the discussion back on track, and at the end of the meeting the discussion deteriorated into several side discussions, which were virtually impossible to understand because of Councilor’s speaking over one another, the masks, and the poor audio quality.
The Council was next scheduled to meet October 6th for a work session on the Police Accountability Board and then October 7th for a public hearing on the proposed budget and a regular monthly council meeting.
Todd covers local government in the Finger Lakes. He has a JD degree the Lincoln Law School of Sacramento. Send tips to [email protected].