By J.L. Rebeor
FULTON – The city’s budding partnership with the state’s new Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments has moved from application to discovery as Fulton city leaders learn more about the program and Albany’s administrators identify their model.
During its meeting Tuesday (Jan. 21) Fulton Mayor Ron Woodward answered an inquiry during the public session about recent meetings between city leaders and Oswego County officials with respect to the new state restructuring board.
“Basically the county knows … some of the economic woes the city is facing, and the state is facing,” Woodward said. “(The county meeting) was kind of a brainstorm to see how they can help us, and what we’re looking at. One of the things that we decided in that meeting is we’ve got the restructuring board in, so we’ve got to kind of be guided by them. It’s very early in the process with them.”
The New York State Restructuring Board for Local Governments was staffed with 10 appointees last fall to make recommendations to 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 serves as an alternative arbitration panel for binding arbitration between municipalities and unions such as police and fire.
During its Nov. 19 meeting in Albany, the restructuring board agreed to accept its first two municipalities for further consideration.
The city of Fulton, in Oswego County – which was the first application received by the board, and the town of Fishkill, in Dutchess County were selected for discussion and vote.
Restructuring board chairman Robert Menga, New York state director of the budget, noted the differences between the first applicants and the reasons the board might consider using them for its model. “We have a very different set of problems, or economics at least, and demographics in these two situations. We have (the city of Fulton) which is pretty high on the poverty rate and relatively poor in terms of income per capita and which has a very high tax rate relative to other municipalities,” Menga said. “And then we have (the town of Fishkill) which is wealthy, has a lower tax rate, and has run into a different set of problems over time in managing certain assets.”
Before its unanimous vote to accept Fulton and Fishkill’s applications, board member Matt Driscoll, president of the Environmental Facilities Corporation and former mayor of Syracuse added, “It truly is a tale of two communities.” He suggested the board incorporate a partnership attitude with the applicants and meet with the municipal leaders, and specifically the staff, to come up with forecasts to help face the upcoming challenges.
The restructuring board members decided to require an action plan be in place for the applicants within six months.
Since its approval in November, Fulton leaders and restructuring board members have had two meetings.
Woodward said during Tuesday’s Common Council meeting that the board’s focus seems to be on duplication of services in villages and towns. ” They have a sizeable staff,” the mayor said. “They’re segmented in the way that there’s one part of the staff that’s focusing on the economic development, so they’re working with the community development director. There’s another one that’s focused on debt reform – if there is any, and they meet with the chamberlain. There’s another that focuses on procurement, and they’ve been talking with the DPW commissioner.
“If you watched the governor’s budget address today, they want consolidation. They are suggesting that counties take over most of the duplication of services in villages and towns,” the mayor noted.
Among many other points during his state proposed budget speech Tuesday afternoon Governor Andrew Cuomo outlined his idea for a property tax freeze in an attempt to hold the line on higher property tax and provide an incentive for local governments to consolidate services.
“The tax that is the main burden in the state is not the income tax. It is the property tax,” Cuomo said. “Why is the property tax so high? Because we have too many levels of government period. You don’t need any calculator to figure this out. When you have as many levels of local government as we have and you are supporting that many subdivisions, the cost is going to be high.”
Fulton Councilor Jay Foster, R-Fifth Ward, said talks with the board so far have been amicable and exploratory in nature. “They basically are on a fishing expedition,” he said. “When we speak to them they know we know what’s going on. … We’re not just grabbing on to money. It may be foundational, but it’s a real sense of getting into the depth of the issues.”
County Legislator Frank Castiglia, D-Fulton, spoke during the public session as a private citizen. During his comments he noted approval for working with the restructuring board.
“Right now we are going to be the poster child,” he said.” With that it’s kind of like being the first round draft pick. You can ask for as much as you can and see what they turn down.”
Woodward noted that the city is waiting to hear back from the board. “Fulton’s just the start of the (municipalities) that are going to fall,” he said. “(I’ve been told) there are 101 municipalities in back of the city of Fulton ready to apply, waiting to see what happens here.”