The NYS Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments’ six-month time frame is up and the city of Fulton is waiting for the final report on what, if any, assistance is available for the financially strapped community.
In November New York State’s financial restructuring board accepted the city of Fulton’s application as a municipality in need and after several meetings with staffers, county officials and city department heads a plan is in its final draft awaiting approval in Albany.
While Mayor Ron Woodward was unable to share all of the details in the submitted draft report, he discussed with Oswego County Today one of the measures he hopes the city can use, if the need arises.
Pointing to one paragraph in draft report, Woodward said, “See that? In public safety, this is one of the things that interested me.”
“This is a section that was in the draft report that I hope is retained in the final report. It will certainly be used during negotiations,” he added.
According to the draft document, in a binding arbitration situation the reform gives increased weight to an eligible local government’s ability to pay as well as requires arbitrators to consider the limitations of the property tax cap for these local governments.
Woodward explained, “If a binding arbitration panel finds that a local government is eligible because of its high property tax rates and low reserves, it must give 70 percent of the weight of its decision to the ability of the local government to pay and consider the requirements and limitations to the property tax cap.”
“Up until now the arbitrators never consider the ability of the local government to pay,” Woodward said. “They’ve been very liberal and they’ve been one sided.”
So, in effect, right now if an arbitrator makes an award to the unions that cost more money for the city to implement, it could result in cuts to other areas of city government and/or a rise in property taxes.
The mayor said the way the state laws are written encourage arbitration boards to interpret the laws liberally in favor of the public unions and they are acting within the parameters of the law.
Meanwhile, he noted that the city’s experience with its three unions in past years have been amicable, “but there have been certain things that cost us a lot of money that we’ve never been able to get back.”
The mayor used examples of the negotiation of minimum staffing levels and work schedules as two items that, if they were changed, would save the city “a lot of money.”
“When you sit down to negotiate with any labor union that’s public they have their lists, we have our list, you have to go back to the council body, they have to go back to their membership. If we won’t budge and they won’t budge, then it comes to what’s called impasse,” the mayor explained. “Then you can get the Public Employment Relations Board, or somebody else in, to try and iron it out. If they can’t, then one side or the other files for arbitration.”
If that happens, that’s when the financial restructuring board would take over the process for arbitration “if both sides agree,” he noted.
“What you see in that legislation is, if it got that far, and the FRB was selected to arbitrate, then the arbitrator would have to consider the city’s ability to pay – which they never have,” Woodward said.
Citing decades of experience in city hall he added, “I’ve been through several arbitrations over the years. We’ve never won one.”
When asked what would be the benefit of unions choosing to use the FRB arbitrator, Woodward acknowledge that the unions are willing to negotiate and have demonstrated an interest in working with the city, “but at the end of the day, if the city can’t pay them, then they’re not going to be here.”
“They do a great job, they’re very professional,” the mayor said, but he noted this is not about quality of service, it is about the ability of taxpayers to pay.
As much as he respects the fire, police and laborers concerns as they have stated in the past about losing members and the future of their departments, “I’m concerned, too,” the mayor said.
“However you can lose your home to a fire or you can lose it to the tax block, too. Either way you lose it and neither way is good,” Woodward said.
Meanwhile, the mayor said the draft plan was submitted two weeks ago, and the Albany staff told him, “We’ll get back to you when we finalize it.”
The FRB was created last summer by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with the purpose of analyzing and advising qualified local governments on improving fiscal stability, management and the delivery of public services.
The board is empowered to provide awards of up to $5 million per municipality through the Local Government Performance Efficiency Program to eligible applicants. The board also is empowered to serve as an alternative arbitration panel for binding arbitration between municipalities and unions such as police and fire at no cost to either party.
Even as Fulton waits for its plan, the state comptroller is seeking to expand ways a municipality can take advantage of the FRB.
In April, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli offered a proposal to empower the FRB with the ability to use grant money to reimburse local governments for costs incurred to develop multi-year budget plans.
“Long-term budget planning is vital to the fiscal health of our localities,” said DiNapoli. “The tax cap and our state’s continued slow economic recovery underscore the need for accurate, balanced budgets reflecting realistic multi-year financial plans. State policymakers must continue to do their part to help localities find and implement real, lasting solutions. This proposal will help encourage municipalities to take action by offering them assistance in dealing with a potential impediment to these efforts.”
DiNapoli’s proposal would allow counties, cities, towns and villages identified as fiscally stressed to be reimbursed by the state’s FRB for all or part of the costs associated with long-term budget planning.
The proposal was forwarded to the Local Government committee and has not yet been placed on its agenda for discussion.