Schenectady County

State boosts aid to Schenectady

An extra $1 million in state aid is expected for Schenectady this year through an incentives program
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An extra $1 million in state aid is expected for Schenectady this year through an incentives program that rewards budget planning, tax cuts and government efficiencies.

“I think it’s wonderful, I think we deserve it and I think there’s a lot more where that came from,” said Mayor Brian U. Stratton, who included the projected aid in his 2008 budget.

But he noted that other municipalities who have met the state’s requirements are also getting a 9 percent increase, continuing the disparity in aid between Schenectady and similar cities that get much more.

“Other municipalities already make more, who haven’t done half of what we’ve done. I’ve made that argument and I’ll continue to make it,” he said. “Schenectady has earned its stripes. I don’t think anyone can make the argument the way we can, because we’ve already done the hard work.”

Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam said state comptroller officials may be on Stratton’s side.

“They are very impressed with what the city of Schenectady has done,” she said, adding that the state has asked if it can send interns to Schenectady’s finance department to learn.

But educating interns isn’t enough to bump the city from $10.8 million to $11.8 million in aid. Schenectady earned the increase through the state’s Aid Incentives for Municipalities program, which guarantees a 9 percent increase in state aid if the municipality meets three criteria. If Schenectady falls behind, it is prohibited from receiving additional state aid, Alam said.

Since the city met the requirements in 2007, she expects Schenectady’s aid increase to be announced when the 2008-2009 state budget is proposed next week, she said. With the increase, 16 percent of the city’s $72.7 million budget will be paid by the state.

STRICT MANDATES

The city had to meet three requirements to earn its aid increase.

First, Schenectady must turn in a four-year fiscal plan every year. Since finance officials developed a five-year plan to get the city back on sound footing in 2004, that requirement was easy to fulfill, Alam said. They add onto the plan at the end of each fiscal year.

Secondly, the city cannot raise taxes above the rate of inflation. That threshold has also been met with the 1 percent tax reductions in 2007 and 2008.

Finally, the city must prove, each year, that it has cut expenses or found ways to share services.

In the 2008 budget, Mayor Brian U. Stratton actually increased spending by $4 million, including a 40 percent increase in the paving budget, funding the next step of the reassessment project and adding two firefighters, an assistant city engineer, a plumber and a property nuisance code officer. The budget also included Stratton’s $36,000 raise and the $4,293 raise for half of the council members. But each politician who got a raise must pay for 20 percent of the health insurance that was previously offered to them free of charge.

However, the budget did include several savings.

A pair of robotic cameras, purchased last fall, will save the city thousands of dollars this year because sewer and water workers will no longer have to hire a contractor to diagnose problems in the pipes. In their first few weeks, the robots did the equivalent of $40,000 of work.

The $500,000 expense will be paid by other municipalities who will rent the robots for a price cheaper than the contractors’ going rate. The city expects to pay off the robots within three years.

Also last year, the city joined a consortium of municipalities to save on prescription drug coverage, joined with the neighboring communities in plans to build a joint salt shed that would be cheaper than building a new one on its own, and cut its billing staff by one after transferring school tax billing to BOCES, which can do it for less money than it costs the city. The city also saved $435,200 on liability insurance by rebidding the contract.

“We have been doing quite a bit,” Alam said.

But Schenectady isn’t out of the woods yet, she added.

“We are on the road to recovery,” she said. “We need more surplus.”

She said she’s “cautiously optimistic” of a 2007 surplus, although she hasn’t closed the books yet.

“Every year looks better than the one before,” she said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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