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Geneva City Council makes deep cuts to 2021 budget at contentious meeting

Among Items Cut: Eliminating Foundry Voucher Program and Funding for Finger Lakes Television Broadcast of Council Meetings

Major changes could be coming to the city of Geneva via significant budget cuts – after a controversial meeting and workshop session held Wednesday. City Council also held a public hearing regarding the New York State cap on property taxes.

The session was a mixture of in-person, and Zoom attendees.

The first item on the evening’s agenda was the public hearing to lift the property tax cap. There was no public comment from the community and the hearing was closed.

The Council then began a budget work session to discuss the 2021 proposed budget. The purpose of this meeting was to consider cuts to the proposed 2021 budget totaling approximately $424,000. City Manager Sage Gerling opened the meeting by indicating that she was presenting the proposed cuts only because of the Council’s direction to achieve budgetary cuts to avoid a property tax increase. Gerling also indicated that neither she nor Assistant City Manager Adam Blowers were comfortable with the level of cuts being proposed.

Mayor Steve Valentino expressed his concerns regarding the proposed cuts by adding, “The way we are going down this path we are not making Geneva the place to live, work, and play — but we are making Geneva the place by the lake to survive.” Other counselors also expressed concerns regarding the budgetary cuts. Frank Gaglianese (At-Large) said that he thought the Council was putting Gerling and Blowers in the position of having to make unreasonable cuts in the budget when their initial budget proposal was perfectly acceptable. Salamendra also expressed concern that the cuts were being taken from the wrong departments. Several times throughout the evening she indicated her preference for making cuts to the police and fire budget instead of from social services programs.

One of the most controversial items that came up was a proposal to eliminate $8700 from the budget for the Foundry Voucher Program. The Foundry Voucher Program provided a $10 food voucher for use of Food Link or the Geneva Farmers Market. This benefit was provided to residents near the Foundry who cannot grow gardens due to soil contamination. Salamendra argued the residents depended on this voucher and that the program is a small way for the City to compensate residents “poisoned” by the Foundry contamination, which she contended was hidden by the city for years. After a contentious discussion, the Council voted to eliminate this program from the 2021 budget.

By the time the Council reached the discussion regarding proposed cuts to the fire department training budget tempers were beginning to flare. Ultimately, the majority of the Council voted to restore the proposed cuts to the fire department training budget, at which point Salamendra appeared visibly upset and in a raised voice said “more money for the fire department cool yeah”.

The council’s decorum completely broke down when discussing a proposed $2,000 cut in the Geneva Police Department’s budget for firearms and ammunition. During the discussion Salamendra again in a raised voice interjected “they go to the range every Saturday”. At the same time, other Councilors were engaging in random overlapping conversations on the issue. Valentino called for order, at which point Salamendra called out “there is no order here”. Valentino responded that there was no order when Councilors spoke out without raising their hand. Salamendra retorted that everyone had been doing it to which Valentino responded, “try using a little respect everyone”.

On the issue of the $2,000 ammunition budget reduction, Councilor Ken Camara (Ward 4) felt that the proposed 10% reduction was not sufficient. He proposed a 25% reduction. Councilor Jan Ragan (Ward 3) questioned why the City needed such a large firearms and ammunition budget when a larger City like Batavia had a smaller budget for the same line item. Gaglianese opposed any reduction in the firearm and ammunition budget item because Chief Passalacqua had previously said that the firearm budget presented was a bare-bones budget that covered only the mandatory expenses. Ultimately, the Council did not have enough votes to keep the $2,000 funding in the budget, but they also did not have sufficient support for increasing the reduction to the 25% proposed by Camera.

The Council also engaged in other heated discussions throughout the meeting. At one point, Gaglianese contended that the Council was merely continuing to go over the same issues repeatedly and that the Council was ignoring the voices of more experienced individuals such as Mayor Valentino. Gaglianese also complimented the work of previous councils adding that they had determined that it was not feasible to cut taxes. Camera responded that Gaglianese was giving far too much credit to previous Councils and that he should not speak of their intelligence. This led Valentino to call Camera out of order for telling another Councilmember what to do. Salamendra also spoke of how Gaglianese had previously gone over everyone’s head to try and deal with issues at the Department of Public Works, adding “that was your vote this is ours”. In addition, Councilor Anthony Noone (At-Large) was upset that his votes seemed to provide some Councilors with “comic relief”. He said that he was voting the way he was because the proposed cuts were nothing more than “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and because he thought residents would be upset at losing these services.

Ultimately, the Council made the following cuts in the budget, including:

1: Cutting $20,000 in economic development funding;

2: Eliminating money for a computer software program that City were using in the Zombie Property program;

3: Cutting funding for Geneva Neighborhood Associations and wellness activities;

4: Cutting $45,000 for tree trimming and removal services;

5: Eliminating $13,500 for Finger Lakes Television broadcasts of City Council meetings;

6: Eliminating $5,000 for city staff overtime expenses associated with parades and other community events;

7: eliminating extra staff costs for the Geneva lakefront Welcome Center;

8: Cutting money for rental of school property for Department of Recreation events;

9: Reducing City staff training expenses to only those training expenses that were required to maintain certifications;

10: Eliminating $15,000 for maintenance and replacement of three Highway Department garage doors

11: Eliminating approximately $8000 from the building and grounds equipment budget for vehicle repairs;

12: Eliminating $3,500 in funding for including informational mailings with City resident water bills;

13: Eliminating $9,000 in office supplies for city staff; and

14: Eliminating $2,500 in funding for the Geneva 2030 Collective that serves the Geneva youth community.

The Council also considered cutting $45,000 in funding for seasonal staff who perform building and grounds work such as mowing parks. Gerling indicated that this cut would be a hard one for her to swallow because it would impact landscaping services, particularly at the lakefront. After discussion, the Council elected to cut only $22,500 from the seasonal workforce budget rather than the full $45,000.

The Council also considered cutting the Geneva Human Rights Commission funding of $2,500. However, after discussion, the Council elected to maintain this funding in the budget. In addition, the Council considered eliminating $68,000 from the budget for a vacant building inspector position. However, after discussion, it was determined that losing this position would significantly impact public safety and would put an undue burden on city Firefighter staff to fill the void left by this vacancy. The Council ultimately elected to maintain this funding in the 2021 budget.

The Council also held a lengthy executive session to privately discuss proposed budgetary cuts in personnel spending. It appeared that the Council was using the executive discussion for this discussion because it involved issues relating to individual employees and potential union contract negotiations. Upon coming out of the executive session, the Council indicated they had rejected these proposed cuts.

The Council concluded the meeting without addressing all of the proposed $424,000 in cuts. The Council scheduled another work session for October 26, 2020, at 6:00 p.m. for consideration of the remaining proposed cuts. After scheduling this meeting, the Council determined that future Council meetings would, until further notice, be held via Zoom because of the increasing risk of COVID-19 exposure. The Council will also continue to broadcast meetings via the City’s YouTube channel.