Teresi’s Budget Suggests Another Small City In Crisis

What does $33.6 million buy these days?

It’s a good question for Jamestown residents who have spent the last week or so mulling Mayor Sam Teresi’s $33.6 million 2014 budget proposal. The budget comes with a proposed 2.68 percent tax levy increase, small cuts in support for the James Prendergast Library, Fenton History Center and Jamestown Senior Center and little in the way of reinvestment in city infrastructure and equipment.

It doesn’t pay for much in the way of youth or senior citizen programs. It doesn’t include much funding for neighborhood initiatives. Most of the things for which city residents have come to rely on the city actually come from federal Community Development Block Grant or state CHIP funding. There simply isn’t any money in the city budget for such initiatives.

So, Jamestown residents, here is roughly what your $33.6 million will buy this year: basic police and fire protection, basic road and park maintenance and code enforcement. Roughly 76 cents of every dollar in the budget goes to wages and benefits – a percentage that hasn’t changed much in more than a decade and which makes each city budget narrative look eerily similar. Teresi has merged departments and implemented more than 50 cost-saving measures during his time as mayor – but the most important facts haven’t changed.

The city remains at more than 90 percent of its constitutional taxing limit. Employee salaries and benefits continue escalating even though city officials are taking a hard line with the unions representing city workers. That hard line at the negotiating table hasn’t changed the basic fact that fewer and fewer workers are eating up a larger chunk of the budget than in years past.

Because so much of the budget pays for salaries and benefits, there is little in the budget for infrastructure and road repair or for equipment to help city workers provide services. There is precious little money for city-supported services to help residents improve their day-to-day lives.

Negotiated or arbitration-imposed minimum manning clauses mean the city can’t simply downsize its workforce. Increases to city health insurance plans must be negotiated, something the city has worked on for more than a decade with some success. Pension system increases have become a huge cost each year, but those are set each year by the state comptroller. To make matters worse, the city pays more for retiree health benefits than it does for active employees.

Such costs mean Teresi and taxpayers find themselves in the same position each year – hoping to keep tax increases as small as possible, settling once in a while for no tax increase and hoping in the best of years for a miniscule tax cut.

Mayors across the state – Teresi included – have begged the state for help over the years. To his credit, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature came through with some half measures this year with a pension smoothing plan, the use of which kept Jamestown from eclipsing its constitutional taxing limit this year, and some binding arbitration reform, though it is unsure if the reforms will help Jamestown anytime soon. City workers work very hard for their paychecks and benefits. The city has dedicated police officers, firefighters, public works employees and office staff who are as dedicated to their craft as their private sector counterparts. The issue isn’t with the work performed by city workers – it is getting that work for a price taxpayers can afford. Cities can’t balance their budgets on the backs of employees, but somehow cities and employee unions must come to agreements friendlier to taxpayers.

Mayors have asked the state to implement maximum health insurance contribution levels that could save money as well as spur easier negotiations with bargaining units as well as requiring retiree participation in Medicare Advantage Plans, which offer comparable benefits to municipal plans but cost municipalities less.

The state also must revamp the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which states all terms and conditions and provisions of an expired public employee contract remain in effect until a new contract is approved. If the expired contracts contain provisions for automatic salary increases, such increases continue without a new contract. The amendment complicates productive negotiations with employee unions because step and longevity increases continue after a contract lapses – especially since municipalities are trying to negotiate cost savings as part of the agreement that are diametrically opposed to the philosophy of bargaining units. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the right things in this regard recently, including creating a Tax Relief Commission. Cities like Jamestown, however, have precious little time left for talk. It is time for decisive action.