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Comptroller’s fiscal warnings should help municipalities improve finances

We’re far from the red budget/green budget disaster of a decade ago, but the cautionary flare sent up by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli shouldn’t be dismissed by Erie County, the City of Lockport and other municipalities.

DiNapoli’s office recently conducted an update of an early warning fiscal monitoring system that found a number of municipalities across the state are under fiscal stress. That warning should be seen as a positive, triggering action before it’s too late.

The caution gives government officials the opportunity to confront budget problems long before the situation deteriorates to the point that a state control board is necessary. That’s what happened in Erie County and Buffalo, where both control boards are currently under advisory status.

Erie County is among 14 local governments deemed susceptible to fiscal stress. Not nearly as bad as the more dire ranking for a couple of downstate counties, Rockland and Suffolk. Still, the designation did not sit well with County Deputy Budget Director Timothy Callan. He insists that the county’s fiscal condition is not as bad as the comptroller indicates. He compares Rockland County’s score of 86.7, at the top of the list as the most fiscally stressed local government in the state, to Erie County’s score of 48.3.

Yes, the county is in relatively good fiscal health. But still, the comptroller’s “hyper-technical measure and ranking system,” as the deputy budget director puts it, might be useful. The point is to recognize the issues raising the county’s stress score, not to be defensive about it. The county should continue to offer sound budgets, continue borrowing through the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority at a lower rate and provide public services.

The City of Lockport is arguably more in need of help. As recently reported, personnel costs are too high and its surplus is too low. Even more serious than ending subsidies to the Friday night summer concert series is the prospect of layoffs of city employees in the 2014 budget. The adoption of the budget will be delayed. Having the Comptroller’s Office look at that budget process should be welcomed by city officials and residents, alike.

Mayor Michael W. Tucker, while noting that the monitoring system is not a control board, seems to be taking a measured approach by calling it a “red flag, a pause.”

Lockport’s problems are alarming, and include population decline, increased rates of child poverty and poor budgetary results. Residents probably didn’t need the comptroller to tell them that things are bad, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone at the state level let local governments know that they’re being watched.

The monitoring system is complicated and probably not a perfect measure of every municipality’s financial condition, but it’s good to know that the comptroller is working to head off trouble.