Mayor Byron W. Brown’s budget proposal, this one covering the fiscal year 2016-17, appears to continue his sound budgeting practices. Details will get aired during budget hearings before the Common Council.
The recommended $494 million in total spending is only slightly higher – less than a 1 percent increase – than the city’s current fiscal year. It holds the line on taxes for the fourth straight year, but the mayor is preparing the ground for that to change. Brown is forecasting a “modest” tax increase in two years – after the city’s ongoing property revaluation is complete. That will also be after the next mayoral election. While Brown calls that a coincidence, the timing is politically astute.
The property tax levy under the 2016-17 budget plan is flat even though the city could have raised taxes by about $4 million, or 2.8 percent, under the tax cap. Instead, Brown continued his hold-the-line policies. He has reduced or frozen city tax rates over his three terms. Five years ago, he also froze property assessments. It all adds up to what he says is among the lowest tax rates in upstate New York.
Those tax rates will drop when the new assessments go into effect, but higher assessments may mean some property owners will be paying more.
As for the 2016-17 budget proposal, the mayor touts savings through the self-insurance programs. The programs reduce medical and prescription costs by $11 million. The city also rebid its refuse disposal contract, cutting the annual cost by $2 million.
One potential trouble spot is that the city is again going into its reserve fund. As News staff reporter Susan Schulman wrote, this time $10.6 million will be used to balance the budget. While it is less than the $15 million in reserves used for the current 2015-16 budget and is in keeping with the city’s four-year plan, fiscal prudence seeks to reduce the dependence on reserve funds.
Residents should keep in mind that the city is expected to end its current fiscal year on June 30 with a $4 million budgetary surplus and a predicted fund balance for the 2016-17 fiscal year of $37 million. The city also has a $37 million “rainy-day” fund that hasn’t been tapped.
Brown has worked diligently at finding efficiencies and improving processes. The recently announced focus on technology promises to improve access and transparency with the launch of a more user-friendly city website, one that will be more interactive.
There is also the proposed purchase of software to give people more access to city-owned real estate data. It will provide details on availability of property and the ability to submit an offer online. Assuming this doesn’t just make it easier for out-of-town speculators, it should help return properties to the tax rolls.
The details, as always, will have to be examined with an eye toward cutting unnecessary spending. But the budget seems to balance the tax burden with support for the city’s renaissance aimed at making it an attractive place to live, work and do business.