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Downturn Doesn’t Slow Free-For-All Spending

Interim Chautauqua County Executive proposed a budget that includes higher spending and inflated revenues for 2021. P-J photo

Nearby rivalries may play well in the arena of athletics, but they continue to prove costly to residents and taxpayers of Chautauqua County. With a population of 127,000, this portion of Western New York continues to refuse to accept its bloated way of life.

What was acceptable during the horse and buggy era of the 1800s and early 1900s is much too costly in the 21st century where communications, Zoom meetings and information happen at a moment’s notice. Residents and businesses here are subsidizing 18 school districts, 27 towns, 13 villages, two cities and one county government — 61 entities that count on more taxpayer dollars from a declining population to operate annually.

Though these longtime institutions are a source of pride and joy, they also drag us down — especially in times like these when the economy is facing a serious downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Never mind what the markets on Wall Street indicate, Main Street is suffering big time.

Take a look around your neighborhood. Jobs have been lost. Stores and restaurants have closed. Even many of those that have not shut their doors have scaled back in terms of employees and hours.

On top of that, one of Chautauqua County’s largest economic engines — New York state — is suffering badly. Most reports out of the state capital peg the current deficit to be around $16 billion.

Exactly just how much funding comes from the state alone? Lots more than residents care to give Albany credit for.

That is a scary sign for the rest of this year as well as the 2021-22 fiscal year when you consider who has barely been touched during this slowdown: the public entities. In terms of the municipalities — our towns, villages and cities -they receive more than $6.8 million from state coffers. Breaking it down further, $6 million goes to the cities of Jamestown and Dunkirk with $577,000 earmarked for the towns and another $244,000 for the villages.

Those contributions, however, are actually a drop in the bucket. For instance, Jamestown and Dunkirk’s budgets are a combined $61 million.

Where the bigger bucks can be found are in your local schools. For this academic year, the 18 districts of this county were earmarked to receive $276,529,069 in state aid. Breaking that down to the 17,866 enrolled in the public schools — and many who are not even yet stepping foot into the buildings — makes that $15,478 New York is contributing per student.

At this moment, those funds are precious. Education administrators across the state, even before proposing many of the current budgets that held the line or increased spending by small margins, have not shied away from expressing worries they could end up with a shortfall.

There’s a lot of blame to go around if that does happen. A 20% reduction in state aid to county schools — just off the top — could be more than $55 million if Washington, D.C., is not willing to throw a life preserver to state governments.

By the way, all school districts in this county overwhelmingly had their budgets approved by residents through mail-in balloting even though those plans seemed too good to be true during a major recession. “Ultimately, the pandemic and its fiscal impact is a nationwide issue and it requires a federal solution even at the local level,” said David O’Rourke, Erie-2 Chautauqua Board of Cooperative Educational Services superintendent, in August. “School leaders are doing everything they can within their power and control to provide support for students and families with the resources that we have available.”

Let’s face it. When it comes to local schools and governments, controlling or reducing spending is almost never the priority. If it was, more regional solutions would have already taken place or forced upon us.

Based on recent area school merger votes, however, too many local residents disdain that type of solution. So instead, those residents who stay keep pouring money into small, insufficient districts that too often promote building projects that are not needed for the student population they serve.

Even Chautauqua County’s most recent 2021 budget proposal by Interim Executive PJ Wendel deserves serious examination. It projects a $3 million spending hike — to $260 million — while also forecasting an overly optimistic $74 million in revenues from sales tax.

How bad could it get? The town of Batavia in Genesee County is reportedly proposing an 89 percent tax hike for next year due to the slowdown caused by COVID-19.

There’s no doubt about it. We’re on a runaway train. Governments and schools, even in the worst of times, are addicted to spending, which ultimately puts one more burden on each and every one of us.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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