It was another “first” for Syracuse city government on Wednesday…a virtual budget presentation by Mayor Ben Walsh.
"Given the current circumstances, this is anything but the traditional way in which we do this..." Walsh said as he began the presentation to common councilors on a Webex conference.
Walsh anticipates the $253 million dollar proposal could look far different by the time councilors vote in early May. In fact, he says his staff was making last minute adjustments in the hour before his presentation. So far, he says they’re projecting an overall $11 million hit to the city budget from the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes a 6.6 percent, or $6.1 million decline in sales tax revenue for the coming fiscal year, which starts July first. As a result, Walsh says they’ll have to draw on $13.9 million in reserves.
"It's clearly not where we wanted to be. Together, over the past two budgets, we've been able to move that number down. Looking at the revenue losses largely related to COVID-19 and where we are with our anticipated draw, what is shows is that we were largely on that path toward reducing that draw and moving towards a balanced budget. We're obviously delayed there. It's unfortunate, but it's our reality."
Walsh says he’s holding property taxes flat, but will increase water rates by four percent…that comes out to an additional $12 dollars for the average household for the year. Helping to soften the economic blow is an extra $1.5 million from increased property valuations, and nearly $3 million in federal relief funds. He asked councilors to be open minded as they review the budget.
"The one thing we can be certain of in this budget is things are going to change. We're going to get some things wrong. We all need to be flexibile in understanding that."
Councilors begin their virtual departmental review of the budget Thursday, and will wrap things up by month’s end.
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS (as provided by the Mayor's office)
City departments cut projected spending across the board to offset impact of COVID-19
The measures to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect revenue in the City of Syracuse in mid-March, just as the City was finalizing its 2021 budget plan. To adjust to further anticipated declines in income, Mayor Walsh and all city departments completed full reviews of their budget proposals and reduced projected spending in every aspect of daily operations. With few exceptions based on essential needs and critical investments, the revised budget includes a hiring and salary freeze across City government.
Because of an increase in property values, the overall tax levy will generate an additional $1.5 million in projected revenue for the City. The Syracuse City School District levy will remain unchanged from last year. The proposal also includes an average water rate increase of approximately $3 per quarter for residential users. Other new revenues are expected from a Parking Fine Amnesty program, the first in a decade, and increases in off-street, non-metered parking fees.
New lead program will protect children and families
The Mayor’s proposed budget funds the implementation of a new lead ordinance to protect the health of children and families. The Common Council identified passing a lead ordinance as a top priority in its legislative agenda and is expected to act on it this spring. The law will enable code inspectors in areas of the city with high lead risk to test for lead even when chipped paint or lead dust is not present. The Division of Code Enforcement will add two new housing inspectors to accommodate the addition of lead testing to the duties of all housing inspectors. The budget also funds a full-time program coordinator, critical component of the lead program to ensure quality control of testing and submissions by property owners.
Online permitting will streamline investment in projects that create jobs
The Mayor’s budget also includes funding for continuing major upgrades to the City’s permit process which will make permitting projects in the city faster and easier. It will fund the implementation of software systems for online permit submission and review, as well as fund a more efficient online permit management system. As Syracuse recovers from the pandemic, the permitting improvements will make the City more competitive to investors who will undertake projects in Syracuse that will create jobs and generate revenue for the City.
Continued investment in public safety
The Mayor’s proposed budget continues to invest in public safety for Syracuse residents. It maintains all funded positions in both the Syracuse Police Department and Syracuse Fire Department, and includes a planned new class of firefighters, the second since Mayor Walsh took office. While the budget does not currently anticipate a new cadet class for the Police Department, which has brought on three cadet classes since 2018, budget dollars allocated for funded positions could be used to bring on an additional class, if needed.
The budget and city capital plan includes:
• Multiple infrastructure projects:
- Completion of the Onondaga Creekwalk Phase II stretching into the southwest and Southside of the city
- Downtown Syracuse mill and pave project (begins in FY21)
- Hiawatha Boulevard Sidewalk Expansion (mill and pave from Van Rensselaer Street to Solar Street, expanding the sidewalk across the Hiawatha bridge and additional sidewalk improvements)
- Butternut Street Dig Once project (begins FY21)
- Repair of Morningside Reservoir
- Mill and pave, crosswalk restoration and road restriping on sections of University Avenue between Waverly Avenue and East Genesee Street
• Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs facility improvements
- Homer Wheaton Park installation of new concession stand
- Thornden Park Amphitheater renovations and facility structure repairs
- Basketball and tennis court improvements (McChesney, Schiller, Homer Wheaton, Dunbar Center, Castle and State Street)
- Westmoreland new playground installation
• Implementation of a geographically-focused code inspector program allowing greater familiarity with neighborhood dynamics and changing needs
• Critical administrative systems including:
- Implementation of an electronic time and attendance system which will generate efficiencies and greater overtime transparency
- Updated accounting and cash management resources to ensure taxpayer’s dollars are managed efficiently
- Completion of a centralized City Payment Center providing residents with a more streamlined process to pay taxes and water bills – including better online options
The budget continues to fund staffing and resources for the City’s leadership and involvement in neighborhood, economic growth and jobs initiatives, including: Syracuse Surge, the City’s strategy for inclusive growth in the New Economy; Resurgent Neighborhoods Initiative, a neighborhood and business corridor revitalization program, including the Infill Housing Strategy, which will create new housing construction in neighborhoods across the City of Syracuse; and Syracuse Build, the City-led partnership for construction training, workforce development and local hiring.
The proposed budget recommends using newly expanded Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to support housing and neighborhood programs that will be affected by the pandemic. In addition to supporting partner agencies like the Greater Syracuse Land Bank, CARES Act funding will also fund the following city services: blighted and emergency property demolitions; code enforcement housing, lead, and sanitation inspectors; and a GIS analyst to assist with neighborhood planning and emergency response.