A Failure in Leadership Results in 17% Property Tax Increase
By Tom Santulli, County Executive and Mike Krusen, Deputy County Executive
What caused the 17% property tax increase in the City of Elmira? Quite simply it was a failure of leadership on the part of the Mayor and City Council. By the way, with the Sanitation fee hike, the overall increase is closer to 25%.
The seeds for this failure were planted by the previous administration of former Mayor Susan Skidmore. In 2014, the City closed its books with a $1 million loss and a year-end (fund balance) reserve of $2.2 million. This was followed by an additional loss of $2.63 million in 2015. (See NYS Comptroller report). Fiscal issues remained unresolved as the departing Skidmore administration left the incoming Mandell administration a 2016 budget that resulted in a $2.4 million loss. Within this three-year period, there were more than $6 million in losses, which eliminated City reserves and replaced it with a negative fund balance of nearly $3 million.
So where did the Mandell administration go wrong? First, County officials urged the City to develop a financial recovery plan that would involve a substantial effort for our two governments to work together (see Mandell email and prepared speech). Unfortunately, the Mayor chose a different path. Rather than be bold, as he had promised in his campaign and suggested in his email dated September 2016, he instead chose to significantly raise taxes and not move forward with any new-shared services with the County.
Before we go further let us be clear, the County’s sales tax reallocation plan DID NOT cause the City’s fiscal problems or result in the City’s 17% property tax increase. In fact, the County’s assumption of City expenses for several departments and services resulted in greater savings for the City. This has been verified by an independent third party (The NYS Division of Budget) and accepted as fact by City officials.
Most troubling is that whenever an opportunity presented financial solutions the Mayor failed to lead and those opportunities were lost. The Governor will soon announce the successful winner in the $20 million municipal consolidation competition. We strongly believe Elmira could have been the recipient of the money. At a local public event, the Governor clearly indicated because the County and the City were actively pursuing bringing both administrations together we were a top contender for these monies. Unbelievably, the Mayor and the City Council voted unanimously to not participate in this grant competition. It is unimaginable that the leadership of an insolvent city could turn down such an opportunity.
More recently, County and City leaders met again with New York State officials to explore solutions and potential sources of relief against the City’s deepening fiscal crisis. Several ideas were suggested and the City response was inaction and silence. Again, the opportunity to be bold as promised by the Mayor rang hollow.
We do not pretend to understand the motives for the Mayor’s failures to seize the numerous opportunities presented. We do however know the results, which are before you now. Certainly, an unfortunate conclusion when his campaign for Mayor argued for building a stronger and more collaborative relationship with the County centered on enhancing shared services beyond those already in place. It is important to note that no County official was advocating for the dissolution of the City. Only the citizens of Elmira can make that decision through a public vote.
In closing, it is not that County officials do not get along with City officials as implied, we simply do not like the way they conduct business. After a very devastating and likely avoidable property tax increase, where City Council literally sat on their hands, we imagine the residents of the City of Elmira do not like the way they conduct business either.
To view the letter of intent click here