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Geneva City Council revisits budget items cut in last session, returns foundry voucher program

The Geneva City Council met Monday for a budget work session. The Council resumed virtual meetings via Zoom due to the increase in COVID-19. The Council continued to try and cut enough spending from the 2021 budget to reduce the anticipated 13% increase in property taxes caused by recent reassessments of property values in Geneva.

Credit: Finger Lakes Times

In the Council’s prior budget work session, the Council had used a procedure where City manager Sage Gerling presented possible items to cut from the budget. Then the Council discussed the proposal and gave a show of hands indicating their support or opposition to those choices. At Monday’s meeting, Mayor Steve Valentino changed the procedure. Monday all budget adjustments were made by Councilor motion and seconds with formal roll call votes. Valentino even employed a rule that prior budget changes could not be reconsidered unless the item was raised via a motion from a councilor who was part of the prevailing vote at the previous work session. Despite implementation of this rule, Valentino at one point conceded that he did not have available minutes from the prior meeting to determine who was part of the prevailing votes.

Councilor Frank Gaglianese (At-Large) opened the discussion by suggesting that the 2021 Budget should include a line item to provide extra money for legal services related to the implementation of the Police Accountability Board (PAB). In fact, Gaglianese also wanted to insert money in the budget to fund the PAB’s operations. These proposals were not voted on because neither Gaglianese nor any other Councilor formally moved to consider these ideas.

However, the discussion revealed that City staff had included an extra $25,000 in the 2021 Budget to cover potential legal fee increases. This led Councilor John Pruett (Ward 6) to move to reduce the legal fees budget to remove the $25,000 increase proposed by staff. Pruett indicated that he thought it was wrong to increase the legal fee budget. Pruett was particularly concerned that the Council needed to make a legitimate effort to cut enough spending from the 2021 Budget to make a real difference in the property tax rate.

Those supporting Pruett’s motions felt that if the PAB or other City activities resulted in extraordinary legal fees, those expenses could be taken from fund balance through a budget amendment. While those opposed felt that, particularly in light of the COVID-19 financial crisis, relying on the fund balance was fiscally irresponsible. The idea was that it would be better to have extra money in the budget that goes unspent rather than having to dig around for money when expenses arise. Valentino was particularly opposed to the motion because he thought the fund balance would take a beating in 2021 because of the continued economic impact of COVID-19. Valentino was also concerned that the Council was once again micromanaging and not listening to the recommendations of City professional staff.

The Council ended up approving Pruett’s motion to reduce the legal fees budget by $25,000 on a split 5-4 vote. Pruett, Councilor Laura Salamendra (Ward 5), Councilor Jan Regan (Ward 3), Councilor Ken Camera (Ward 4), and Councilor Tom Burrall (Ward 1) voted in favor of the motion. Valentinio, Gaglianese, Councilor William Pealer (Ward 2), and Councilor Anthony Noone (At-Large) voted against the reduction.

Regan moved that the Council eliminate $22,000 from the $44,000 budget line item funding for Geneva’s three volunteer fire departments. Regan felt the line item was too high because she does not believe that the use of these funds is properly accounted for.

The Council engaged in a lengthy discussion that mirrored their previous discussions on this issue. Those who supported keeping the entire $44,000 budget line item felt it was necessary to properly fund the work of volunteer fighters, particularly given the City’s lack of support on purchasing equipment for the three Geneva volunteer departments. These Councilors also pointed out that the City was getting a bargain given that this funding had not been increased in years and was considerably lower than what other similar-sized cities spend. Those supporting the $22,000 reduction argued that the budget line item is too high because of the lack of accountability. Some also argued that the departments should not need this much money for equipment because the City should be providing it and because while some items are consumable many can be used for multiple years.

Fire Chief Michael Combs pointed out to the Council that this funding is critical because it allows the volunteer departments to fund some smaller equipment items that he does not have money for in the Department’s budget and because it is critical for keeping volunteers professionally trained, particularly those who also function as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs).

Salamendra eventually moved to amend Regan’s initial motion to state that the money would only be provided if the fire department provided an accounting of how the money would be spent. She stated she did not want to wait for transparency but wanted transparency now. Salamendra’s motion did not receive a second and died. The Council then rejected Regan’s initial motion and the entire $44,000 for volunteer fire departments remained in the budget.

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

Pruett raised the issue of possibly delaying the hiring of an additional Code Enforcement Officer as another way to save some money. Salamendra, as a member of the prevailing vote to keep the position at the Council’s previous work session, moved to delay the hiring of a Code Enforcement Officer for 6 months, which would result in a roughly $34,000 budget reduction.

City Manager Sage Gerling indicated that given the City was in a hiring freeze, she and Assistant City Manager Adam Blowers had discussed the Code Enforcement Officer vacancy extensively. Gerling indicated that the discussions led to the conclusion that hiring the Code Enforcement Officer immediately was vital because the Department was understaffed and because of the importance of the function.

The Council discussion of the issue revolved around the same issues discussed at the previous meeting. Most were concerned about the public safety issue of delaying the hiring. In addition, many expressed concerns about the understaffing of the code enforcement function. Others were also concerned that the delay might cause the City to miss out on hiring a highly qualified candidate. In addition, there were also concerns regarding the potential economic loss that could be caused by the delay.

Gaglianese and Burrall expressed frustration that this issue had been dealt with in-depth previously, and Gaglianese once again was concerned that the Council was not listening to their advisors.

After a lengthy discussion, the Council unanimously rejected the motion to delay hiring the Code Enforcement Officer. Even Salamendra voted against her own motion.

After Salamendra’s motion was defeated, she called on someone to move for a reconsideration of the $8,700 for the Foundry Voucher Program. Eventually, Regan obliged and moved to reinsert the voucher program funding back into the 2021 Budget. Again, the Council’s discussion followed a similar line as the discussion at the previous meeting, but this time around Councilor’s seemed better educated on what the vouchers are used for and who qualifies for them. The Council approved Regan’s motion to reinsert $8,700 for the Foundry Voucher Program by a 7-2 vote with only Camera and Pealer voting no.

Next, Gaglianese tried to reinsert $2,000 in the budget for the police department’s firearms and ammunition budget. But Gaglianese was prevented from bringing the motion because he was not on the prevailing side of the previous vote on the issue. There was no Councilor who was a member of the prevailing vote to remove the funding who was willing to move to reinsert it and the issue died without action.

The last General Fund item was a motion by Noone to reinsert $2,500 in the 2021 Budget for Colony Care Givers, who work with stray and feral cats. While everyone seemed to support the general concept of the program, some councilors were concerned about the legal ramifications of the grant because Colony Care Givers sends cats back into the community, rather than adopting them out, once they are spayed or neutered. However, in the end, the motion passed by a split 5-4 vote.

The Council was next slated to consider cuts to the Water and Sewer Budgets. Blowers informed the Council that in order to avoid the planned 4% water rate increase and the 2.5% sewer rate increase, the City would need to defer all water and sewer maintenance for 2021. Blowers indicated that while deferring the maintenance would achieve the Council’s goal of a 0% rate increase, he was concerned because these maintenance items had been previously delayed, and could become emergencies that would have to be funded through the fund balance. Blowers also stated that if the maintenance issues became an emergency, fixing the issues could be more expensive than if the City simply went ahead with the planned maintenance.

Valentino made a motion to keep all of the maintenance expenses in the budget. If passed this motion would result in a 4% water rate increase and a 2.5% sewer rate increase.

Camera asked if it was possible to apportion rate increases amongst classes of customers. Camera specifically wanted to know if it was possible to create a rate structure where City residential customers would not incur a rate increase, which would then be shouldered by residential customers outside of the city and by all commercial customers served by the City. Blowers indicated that this could potentially be done. However, Blowers stated he did not have available information on how such a structure would look in terms of the breakdown of how many customers would receive no increase and how many customers would incur and increase or what that increase would be. Blowers committed to have this information available for the Council at their next budget meeting.

At this point, Regan interjected that she felt it was vital for the Council to have available the information Blowers would be preparing before voting on the proposed sewer and water fund cuts. Regan proposed tabling the issue until the Council’s next budget meeting. Valentino warned the council that if the issue was tabled, the Council would be unable to discuss the issue further until the next. Despite this warning, Regan moved to table the issue and the Council approved her motion to table.

After the motion to table the water and sewer fund discussion was approved, Councilors including Regan and Camera attempted to further clarify their positions on why they felt it was important to wait for the information Blowers was going to prepare. Valentino repeatedly, to no avail, reminded Councilors that the issue could no longer be discussed because it had been tabled.

Valentino then moved to adjourn the meeting in the middle of Camera speaking. While Camera was still trying to speak, the motion was seconded and Valentino called for a voice vote. Although it did not sound as if a majority of the Council voted yes on the motion to adjourn, in response to Fingerlakes1’s request for clarification, City Clerk Lori Guinan indicated that only Burrall voted no on the motion to adjourn, which meant that it passed by a vote of 8-1. For the second meeting in a row, Valentino ended the meeting before the results of the vote on the motion to adjourn were even announced. In this case, the Zoom and YouTube live feeds were instantly terminated right after Burrall voted no.

The Council is scheduled to hold a budget meeting on Wednesday, October 28, 2020, at 5:30 P.M. At this meeting, the Council is scheduled to resume discussions on the water and sewer fund and vote on the overall budget. Since the Council will be voting on the budget on the 28th, it did not appear that the Council would be giving the community any opportunity to comment on the significant budget cuts the Council has made.