City of Rochester
(Tuesday, April 23, 2013) – Mayor Thomas S. Richards today released the City’s report on this year’s Voice of the Citizen (VOC) community budget discussions. Mayor Richards hosted one VOC session in each city quadrant, with the final session occurring at the Adams Street Community Center on April 3. Community input was also received via an online survey.
The open space forum featured table topics that included: taxes, fees and new revenues; pensions; police; fire; infrastructure, public facilities, real estate; youth and library neighborhood services; federal funding cuts; and organizational efficiencies. Attendees shared their thoughts on possible budget cuts or revenue increases in these areas and also proposed new ideas to the administration for consideration.
Last year, the Mayor used input from the VOC meetings to help him develop his approach to making final budget decisions and this year will be no different. “We began this year’s process with a gap of $42.7 million and—working with our unions—we have taken very aggressive steps that include long-term, systemic budget changes to reduce that to the current $28 million,” said Mayor Richards. “That is still a very large number and cutting programs and services at that level will cause pain.”
Mayor Richards hosted the Voice of the Citizen budget discussions to obtain community input and to communicate the context and facts of the City’s budget. The sessions gave citizens an idea of the types of decisions the City must make in trying to close its $28 million budget gap. In addition to asking what people think about the City’s programs and services in relation to their value, the Mayor and City Budget Director Christopher Wagner provided a detailed presentation of the City’s fiscal situation to help citizens better educate themselves about the circumstances and challenges facing the City.
At the VOC meetings, City Budget Director Christopher Wagner provided the details of the City’s budget and its challenges in his presentation entitled “Seeking Innovative Solutions.” After a re-cap of last year’s budget, Wagner laid out the factors for the City’s future fiscal health. Among them is a continued push for Rochester’s fair share of state aid, as well as efforts to control employee benefit costs, increase the City’s taxable assessment and seek mandate relief.
The Budget Director’s presentation included an explanation of the City’s revenues and expenses and the Mayor often interjected at points throughout, pointing out that of all the revenue the City takes in, the only source it has any control over is the property tax, for example. Property tax amounts to 28 percent of the City’s total revenue; and nearly three-quarters of that revenue is sent directly to the school district. The Mayor also highlighted the distribution of General Fund costs across City departments to explain the difficult challenge in identifying budget reductions. Police and Fire department funds comprise the largest majority of departmental expenses, exceeding the budgets of all other City departments combined. The Mayor explained that the cost to operate a branch library or a recreation center each year is about equal to the cost of three police officers or firefighters.
“I want people to be aware of the serious fiscal issues facing our City government,” continued Mayor Richards. “These sessions provided an opportunity for citizens to educate themselves about the situation and provide their feedback about how we should proceed.”
The Mayor and Budget Director also discussed the severity of the rise in employee pension costs. Those costs to the City have more than doubled since 2010 and are expected to peak at over $50 million two years from now. Options for deferring a portion of these costs through the state’s amortization program were discussed and are being considered. Employee healthcare costs will continue to rise as well, although an agreement between the unions and the administration will cap the City’s increase at 3.75 percent annually for three years.
VOC attendees demonstrated a good understanding and a sharp interest in the City’s budget circumstances. A total of about 100 people attended the sessions and 32 individuals took part in the online survey. The complete report and budget presentation materials can be found at www.cityofrochester.gov/vocbudget.
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