The audit of Schenectady finances by the state comptroller’s office released Tuesday makes it abundantly clear that city officials have their work cut out for them.
If the audit’s forecasts are even remotely accurate, and if a number of the things Mayor Gary McCarthy is counting on to bail the city out — things he has little control over — don’t occur, taxpayers will be facing a series of painful tax hikes, or worse.
Unfortunately, McCarthy doesn’t seem too fazed by the comptroller’s forecast, which calls for deficits as high as $12.9 million by 2016 if the city doesn’t get its house in order. Really, it’s more like if a miracle doesn’t occur. (And the audit’s suggestion that the city pursue consolidation of its police force with the county, while worthy, would be one if it were to occur.)
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the practically broke city dealing with the $2.1 million budget gap forecast for next year, much less one six times that size.
McCarthy insists the forecast is “kind of” a worst-case scenario, and for his sake and every other Schenectadian’s, we hope he’s right. But even if he is, he and the City Council should take this threat seriously and make preparations for contingencies, just in case. The mayor, for example, is counting on increased revenue from the sale of foreclosed properties and enhanced code enforcement, and he expects continued strong performance from the stock market to ease the annual hike in pension obligations to the state. Given political realities, the city’s history and storm clouds on the global economic front, what makes him think any of these will really happen? And what will he do if they don’t?
Within the past year, the mayor and council have been hesitant to lay off a few workers and cut frills like the cars driven by privileged city employees. They even backed down when it came to imposing a $10 administrative fee on funeral directors demanding one-day service on death certificates from the clerk’s office. In order to balance its budget without huge tax hikes in the future, wholesale layoffs may be necessary. Are they prepared to impose them, and if not what else will they do?
These are not the kinds of decisions that should be made hastily, nor should they be made in a back room, without all council members’ participation and at least some public input. The secretive way the Democratic majority finalized its budget this fall, then overrode McCarthy’s controversial veto, was a travesty, yet there is nothing to indicate — despite more than the usual amount of public protest — that any change is in store. (See today’s front-page story on the subject by Kathleen Moore.) That’s hardly gladdening news because the city appears to be heading into some stiff economic headwinds, stiffer than four women and a man can deal with in a room by themselves.