EDITORIAL: Local governments, taxpayers can’t escape covid pain

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Categories: Editorial, Opinion

The coronavirus crisis has overburdened our health care system.

It’s submarined our national, state and local economies, perhaps for many years.

Thousands are out of work and many businesses may be forced to close for good.

It’s upended our educational system and resulted in thousands of people becoming ill or dying from the virus.

So what makes Schenectady residents think this crisis wouldn’t have an impact on the city budget and their local tax bills?

Mayor Gary McCarthy last week submitted his proposed budget for 2021, and it’s not pretty.

To close an anticipated $12 million budget deficit, the proposed $87.68 million budget includes 63 personnel cuts that cross the spectrum of city government, from police and firefighters to staff positions, painters, crossing cards and codes officers.

Many of the positions are those that became vacant and haven’t been filled, meaning city residents have been living without them for some time now.

While the mayor’s budget cuts $3.4 million in general fund spending from the current year, it also contains a 2.82% tax hike and a $5 per month increase in the price of trash collection.

It’s the tax hike that’s got some residents up in arms. And with city taxes already as high as they are, that’s understandable.

But honestly, what did they expect?

Like everywhere else, the city has been reeling from a decline in business and sales tax due to the covid shutdowns. Property sales were down significantly, and the state, facing its own financial hardships, has withheld more than $2 million in aid.

Those asking what happened to the promised tax break from the casino revenue forget that the casino was closed for nearly six months, and only now is beginning to ramp up again and generate tax revenue.

During the shutdown, the city lost $1.9 million in anticipated casino revenue.

The city even incurred additional unreimbursed expenses it didn’t have a year ago, to deal with the covid crisis and the Black Lives Matter protests.

While the city is looking to the state for financial help to balance its budget and pay some of its expenses, the governor has his back turned to Washington, seeking a financial bailout that Congress seems very reluctant to provide.

To help avert further layoffs, particularly to police and fire, the city last week borrowed $7 million.

In an editorial in August, we urged the city to only borrow as a last resort after exhausting all other options to cut non-essential staff and recover unpaid taxes.

Does this budget exhaust all other options?

That will be up to members of the City Council to decide if there are other areas in the mayor’s budget to cut that could help stave off the tax and fee increases.

One area we’re particularly concerned about are the proposed cuts to the city codes office. This city has seen the fatal consequences of having a codes office ill-equipped and undermanned to inspect properties and enforce codes.

If the council wants to restore the lost positions, as it should, it will have to find the money to pay for them.

Maybe there are programs or expenses that can be put off another year. If they can’t or won’t identify them, that might mean cutting other essential services, raising more fees or increasing the proposed tax hike.

If citizens or council members have other ideas for cutting expenses, eliminating waste and keeping taxes in line, now is the time to share them. You have until Nov. 1.

But the options might not be as obvious or readily available as one might think.

No one has escaped the pain of the coronavirus crisis. Local governments are now being forced to come to terms with that.

And so, unfortunately, are their taxpayers.

 

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