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Election Results
  • Chemung County Executive Race: Chris Moss (R) 55% Jerome Emanuel (Dem) 29% Krusen (I) 16%
  • 1st District: Pastrick (R) 57% Pucci (Dem) 43%
  • 2nd District: Manchester (R) 69% Saglibene (Con) 30%
  • 3rd District: Sweet (R) 53% Lynch (Dem) 40%
  • 4th District: Brennan (R) 64% Bond (Dem) 35%
  • 5th District: Margeson (R) 64% Stow (Dem) 20% Miller 15% (I)
  • 7th District: Sonsire (Dem) 63% Milliken (R) 36%
  • 8th District: Woodard (R) 58% Callas (Dem) 41%
  • 9th District: Burin (R) 74% Fairchild (I) 25%
  • 12th District: McCarthy (Dem) 50% Collins (R) 45%
  • 13th District: Drake (R) 65% Logan-Lattimore (Dem) 34%
  • 14th District: Smith (R) 68% Heyward (Dem) 31%
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About this blog

About matters pertaining to Chemung County government. 

Entries in this blog

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

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The Chemung County Matters blog exists to help promote discussions about local issues. The views expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect my own, but are rather shared here in order to provide information and hopefully stimulate ideas.

Last night the Chemung County Legislature voted 14-2 in favor of a new sales tax plan, with only Peggy Woodard (District 8) and Rodney Strange (District 15) voting no.

The old plan has been under intense scrutiny since it was passed in 2013 for taking resources from the towns, villages and City of Elmira, causing many of them to suffer fiscal hardships.

Numerous candidates for local office have strenuously advocated for a change in the way sales tax monies are allocated between the county and its municipalities, something that is undoubtedly part of the decision of county leaders to change course.

However, the new plan has many problems as well.

Prior to the vote, I offered comments to the sitting legislature about new plan as it relates to the towns and villages. I intend to describe my position in a subsequent post within the next day or so.

John Burin, a former manager of the City of Elmira and current candidate for legislature in the 9th District, offered comments about the new plans as it relates to the city. A copy of his statement is shown below.


 

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October 9, 2018

Honorable Legislators:

On September 24, 2018 I mailed each of you a letter with supporting documentation asking that you table this proposed plan to revise the reallocation of sales tax. I also referenced a process by which the 2019 county budget and budget message could move forward without the revised plan being in place. In my op ed on September 23, 2018, I pointed out in three months, newly elected officials should have the right to vote on this multi-year funding program.

I fully support a plan to reallocate sales tax revenue however, I believe the plan should be based on more than fund balances and debt. For example, the County apportionment of real property taxes creates an unintentional double taxation for certain services. These inequities, which are common to most of the towns/villages in varying degree, should be taken into consideration with the allocation of sales tax dollars. Additionally, from 2013 to 2018 Chemung County expenses increased $15 million dollars. During this same time period five county budgets were passed with deficits that required $10.5 million dollars of fund balance to close the gap. Future estimates of county revenues and expenses should be projected showing the impact of a sales tax reallocation plan.

In order for our county to realize desired social/economic growth, we must work together for a common cause. It was in this spirit that the City of Elmira allowed it’s Empire Zone Benefits to be used outside the City. The City’s willingness to share its zone in early 2000 produced economic benefits we still enjoy today and will continue to enjoy into the future.

According to the Chemung County Industrial Agency report, Project Information, December 31, 2009 the City of Elmira Empire Zone;

*Leveraged over $700 Million of private investment.

*Generated new property tax revenue for the County in excess of $900,000 and $1.7 million local and school tax revenue. Each year as property tax exemptions expire, the real property tax revenue increases and therefore current tax revenue is significantly greater.

*The City’s zone created 4,500 jobs and retained 10,000 jobs.

*14,500 jobs with an average salary of $20,000 generated $290 Million of payroll.

*$290 Million of payroll generates millions of sales tax dollars.

This is a billion dollar infusion of economic benefits. If not for the City of Elmira sharing its Empire Zone, Chemung County finances would be quite different today.

In June 2016, the New York State Financial Restructuring Board commented on the City of Elmira’s Bond Rating. “Prior to June 2015, the City had a bond rating of A2 with a negative outlook from Moody’s. On June 1st, 2015, Moody’s released a new rating for the City’s General Obligation bonds and lowered the rating by five notices – to Ba1 with a sustained negative outlook. This is non-investment grade (junk bond) rating from Moody’s.”

The reasons Moody’s cited for this severe reduction in the City’s credit rating are:

*Significant loss of revenue from the County sales tax sharing agreement;

*Health insurance overruns;

*Recurring general fund deficits

Moody’s will view new development positively however this plan that defers City debt will most likely not improve the City’s poor investment grade of bonds. The mixed use $14,000,000 development project in Elmira was granted a twenty year payment in lieu of tax agreement with the first four years being 100% exempt, after eleven years the project will pay 30% and in year twenty 60%. Property tax revenue from the affordable housing projects are restricted by law and proposed private developments have been given multi-year tax exemptions. It is for these reasons additional sales tax revenue to the City should be a part of tonight’s plan. Even if the revenue is restricted as to use, Moody’s may look favorably at a slight upgrade.

Sound business practice would suggest that this proposed sales tax allocation is deficient of solid reasoning for the suggested allocations. Over the next three months, a cohesive legislature working together should develop a plan that addresses the needs of the community keeping in mind the future needs of county government as well as the social and economic challenges inherent with high poverty levels, effective tax rates that stagnate real estate values and the ever increasing cost of providing efficient public safety services.

The plan before you tonight falls short in capturing these community needs. Lets take a step back, analyze the financial impact of what is being proposed and compare those findings to the needs of our community.

Thank you,

John J. Burin


 

 

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

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The question of whether sales tax revenue is allocated appropriately among Chemung County, the City of Elmira, and the county’s towns and villages has been discussed extensively over the past year.

Widespread interest about this issue is primarily driven by three factors: (1) the current sales tax agreement is set to expire in two months; (2) this November’s election features an unprecedented number of candidates for local office, many of whom have analyzed the current plan and offered opinions about ways to improve it; and (3) numerous municipal leaders have been outspoken about the plan’s negative effects on their entity’s fiscal health.

I set forth some of the recent statements by municipal leaders about the impact of the sales tax plan in a post last August, found here, and have restated them below:

*In 2016, Town of Horseheads Supervisor Mike Edwards attributed the town’s new tax levy directly to the sales tax plan, as shown here.

*Southport Town Supervisor David Sheen – named by Sheriff Chris Moss, a candidate for Chemung County Executive, to serve as deputy if Moss is elected – announced the town’s plans for infrastructure projects and buildings are on hold, and Southport taxes will likely go up in coming years as a direct result of the way sales tax revenue is distributed, as shown here.

*The Town of Chemung laid off its entire highway department earlier this year, a move Chemung Town Supervisor George Richter stated was made necessary in part because of the lack of sales tax revenue, shown here. Supervisor Richter also wrote a Star Gazette Op-Ed last week in which he stated that the Town of Chemung is looking to significantly increase its tax rate because of a looming fiscal crisis tied to the current sales tax plan, shown here.

*Elmira Mayor Dan Mandell, along with Elmira Manager Mike Collins, has been adamant that despite offsets from shared service agreements with the county, the sales tax plan has had a significant negative impact on the city’s finances, as shown here.

*The Town of Veteran Board held a budget meeting in early December where the possibility of a tax increase for 2019 of up to 133% (!) was discussed, due in large part to the same problem – its revenue stream has been diminished. Minutes from the budget meeting were not kept, but this information has been confirmed Anthony Pucci, a candidate for legislator in the 1st District, who was present.

At a time when Chemung County officials continue to boast about going 14 years without a tax increase, and at the same time insist all municipalities aside from the City of Elmira and possibly the Village of Elmira Heights are on solid financial footing and in good fiscal health, it is imperative that we try to fairly and objectively understand what impact, if any, the county’s decision to strip revenue from its towns and villages has had not only on local governments, but also on the population that matters most – taxpayers.

This is the only way we will be able to discover the optimal way to negotiate a new sales tax agreement and move our community forward in a unified way.

The Town of Elmira is on New York’s “Fiscal Stress” list

The Town of Elmira, where I live, has also been negatively impacted by the sales tax plan.

This blog post should not be read as a criticism of Town of Elmira Supervisor Dave Sullivan or the town board members. To the contrary, the information below shows Sullivan – named by Mike Krusen, a candidate for Chemung County Executive, as his choice for deputy – has been forthcoming about problems he anticipated since the plan’s inception, and he and the board members have worked hard to find creative ways, such as shared service arrangements, to provide adequate services as the town’s revenue stream decreased significantly.

Despite these efforts, a press release sent yesterday by New York Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, found here, and reported by the Binghampton Press and Sun Bulletin here, shows that the Town of Elmira, along with Broome County, were the only two local governments in the Southern Tier included on the 2017 “Fiscal Stress” list.

According to DiNapoli:

Quote

“Fewer local governments are considered fiscally stressed, but those with persistent financial problems are struggling to stay out of the red and fix their problems. While the results may be encouraging in some areas, there are municipalities that should focus on near-term financial risks and implement more prudent long-term planning.”

DiNapoli’s full report, found here, includes a chart that shows only 2.5% of reporting municipalities in New York (or 34 out of 1,464) are in or at risk of fiscal stress:

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Town of Elmira finances prior to implementation of the sales tax plan

The important questions we must ask are these: how and why did the Town of Elmira land on this list?

Prior to the implementation of the sales tax plan in 2015, the Town of Elmira, like many other municipalities in Chemung County, was fairly flush with money. The economic spillover from fracking in Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier led to a rapid rise in sales tax monies for nearly all local governments, resulting in large, arguably bloated, reserves.

In order to provide tax relief to the residents of the Town of Elmira, Sullivan and the board reduced the town’s tax levy significantly between 2012 and 2014. To make up the budget gap, they spent reserves down by 35 percent, from a high of $2,563,951 as of January 1, 2012 to $1,658,876 as of December 31, 2014. A full accounting of the town’s finances during that that period is found here.

2014 press conference in Wisner Park

However, just as Sullivan and many other local municipal leaders were attempting to spend down their reserves in order to provide relief to taxpayers, county officials announced their plan to cut off a substantial part of the revenue stream flowing to the municipalities by changing way sales tax is allocated. By this time New York’s fracking moratorium had been established and gas drilling in Pennsylvania had slowed considerably, leading county officials to worry that sales tax revenue would drop dramatically.

On October 8, 2014, an organization called RAMS (the Rural Association of Mayors and Supervisors) held a press conference in downtown Elmira’s Wisner Park, where its members urged Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli to cancel the sales tax plan altogether before the scheduled implementation date in January, 2015.

At the conference, Sullivan criticized the county’s rationale for taking sales revenue from the towns and villages. Arguing that the decline in sales tax revenue countywide had not been nearly as bad as expected, and that the Town of Elmira and other municipalities had followed the county’s directive to spend down reserves by reducing their tax levies and using fund balance monies to cover operating expenses, Sullivan said:

 

Quote

 

“Since 2010, we’ve made a concerted effort to reduce our tax levy, and we’ve used sales tax revenue and fund balances to do that…

…[a]nd that’s not just our case. I know that others are doing the best job they can with using these resources to put the money back in the community and reduce taxes for the citizens.

So, in our case, we’ve kind (of) been doing what they’re advocating, but yet we’re all being painted with this broad brush that we have too much of this, we have too much of that, and we’re sitting on the money and not putting it to work. On behalf of our town board, I take exception to that.”

 

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Audits by the Comptroller’s Office

Despite the concerns raised by Sullivan and other RAMS members, the sales tax plan was implemented early in 2015.

Roughly a year later, following an audit by the Comptroller’s Office, the Town of Elmira landed on the “Fiscal Stress” list for the first time – and has been one of only a handful of municipalities across New York to remain on it ever since.

A primary reason for the fiscal stress designation set forth in the audit, found here, and in described by the Star Gazette here and in the clip below, is the Town of Elmira’s continued reliance on reserves to covering operating expenses.

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“Fiscal Stress” scores of Chemung County municipalities

According to the Comptroller’s Office in a flyer found here, all municipalities in New York that submit data are given a fiscal stress score based on number of different financial indicators including things such as year-end fund balance, operating deficits/surpluses and cash position.

Any municipality with a score of 45 or greater is deemed to be in or at risk of fiscal stress. A review of Chemung County’s municipalities from a graph found here shows the Town of Elmira is the only local municipality named on this list over the past three years:

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What do Town of Elmira officials say about their financial situation?

This is a tough question to answer.

A review of the town’s Board Meeting minutes from the past year reveals they remain concerned about spending down reserves beyond an acceptable level, and that they feel the sales tax plan is at least partially to blame.

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Excerpt from 12-17-17 board minutes 

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Excerpt from 7-8-18 board minutes

 

I attended a Town of Elmira Budget Workshop on September 10, 2018, where Sullivan and the board members shared many observations about the current state of town finances going forward over the next few years.

The preliminary 2019 budget projected the town’s fund balance would drop from 24% this year to just 13% in 2020, down from a recent high of 62% in 2016, and showed the potential for a tax increase in 2019 as high as 7%:

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A copy of the Town of Elmira's preliminary budget with my handwritten notes 

 

These figures are clearly subject to change as the budget process is fluid, but one thing stood out: Sullivan and the board members agreed they were hopeful the county will change the sales tax plan prior to finalization of their budget in order for the increased revenue to provide some relief.

A municipality on solid financial footing and good fiscal health? A town that has not been negatively impacted by the sales tax plan? It sure didn’t sound like it to me.

Unfortunately I am unable to to back up what was said at the workshop with minutes, as the town has not posted anything from the meeting even though it occurred almost two and a half weeks ago.

More troubling, a follow-up public Budget Workshop was apparently held on September 24th, yet no notice of the meeting was provided to the community as shown below on the town’s current Agenda list and Calendar, found here and here:

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As I have reiterated in numerous posts, matters like this illustrate why a Council of Governments makes so much sense. Figuring out how to redesign the sales tax plan requires input from representatives of all layers of local government. We have a real opportunity to make the kind of changes many people have been after for years, but getting it right requires genuine cooperation and all of the facts.

Christina-Bruner Sonsire is an attorney in Elmira and candidate for the Chemung County Legislature. 

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

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Chemung County Legislator Marty Chalk pleaded with county officials to find ways to improve their relationship with the City of Elmira during Tuesday night’s presentation. 

 

At a meeting of the Legislature’s Budget Committee on Tuesday night, Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli and Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen presented a proposal to change the way sales tax revenue is shared among the county, the City of Elmira and the remaining towns and villages. If approved by the legislature, the proposed changes would remain in effect for six years. A video of the presentation can be viewed here.

Background

In order to discuss the proposal, it is important to have a basic understanding of how sales tax allocation currently works in Chemung County. Most of this information can be found in a report by the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) that was released in January, 2018 and can be found here.

The current sales tax rate in Chemung County is 8%, comprised of a 4% county sales tax (the “local share”) and a 4% state sales tax. Prior to enforcement of the Financial Restructuring Plan in 2015, the county retained 62.5% of the local share, and 37.5% was given to its municipalities, including the City of Elmira.

Today, three years after the Financial Restructuring Plan went into effect, the county retains 74.2% of the local share, with just 26.6% going to its municipalities. In other words, sales tax revenue going to the municipalities has decreased by 10.9% at the same time the county’s portion increased by 11.7%.

To compare this data in dollars rather than percentages, the county retained an additional $3,500,000 of gross sales tax revenue before accounting for the value shared service agreements since 2015, while revenue flowing to its municipalities decreased by the same amount, figures set forth in a letter from Krusen accompanying the CGR report (included in the link above.)

As their revenue streams have decreased, many municipal officials have stressed the need to revise the current sales tax allocation formula regardless of whatever offset they may have received through shared services. However, as I described in detail in a blog post last week (found here), county administrators have been adamant that changes to the sales tax plan are unnecessary – until now.

Indeed, in the letter accompanying the CGR report, Krusen states that the county did not intend to make any changes to the sales tax plan until at least 2019 in order to allow for further studies of the current plan’s efficacy:

“Since 2018 marks the last scheduled sales tax formula adjustment and the full impact of these modifications need further observation and monitoring it would not be prudent to consider any further adjustments to the County sales tax formula that is current law. There should be an extended period for additional review of impacts to municipal services, property taxes and reserve accounts to determine the full impact of formula adjustments.

This review function can best be accomplished through the development of a Council of Government structure that creates a financial review sub-committee. The review committee support function can be housed in the County Treasurer’s office. Such expanded responsibilities should be funded by the County with agreed upon financial metrics jointly developed by all municipalities and reported out by the year end after the proceeding years fiscal results have been evaluated. The first report would be available in the fall of 2018 covering results from 2017 and 2018 the last year of the formula adjustments would be reported in the fall of 2019.

Shortly thereafter, in an article published in the Star Gazette just after the CGR report was released entitled “Chemung County sales tax shift working, Elmira still sinking“, Santulli stated:

“CGR took a snapshot of how we are doing today. The health of governments is the story, except the City of Elmira, Towns and villages have fund balances that are more than adequate. This is a positive and to their credit.”

Then, on July 12, 2018, Krusen published an Op-Ed in the Star Gazette entitled “Facts about Chemung County’s Tax Plan” wherein he stated:

“The (sales tax) plan has been effective in that it has provided greater financial stability to the county and lowered excessive municipal fund balances. Our governments continue to work more cooperatively and have held the line on spending. Much credit goes to our local government leaders for answering the call to be even more resourceful with taxpayer monies.

While the decision has not pleased everyone, it is clear that this plan has increased cooperation and has created greater opportunity to work together and provide public services more efficiently. Now that is a plan we should all be able to get behind.”

The Proposal

To the surprise of many, the proposal by Santulli and Krusen calls for increasing the amount of sales tax revenue going to all municipalities except for the City of Elmira by 3.4%, a reallocation that would remain in place, according to their plan, for six years.

The proposal does not call for any increase of revenue going to the city, but instead extends the length of time for the city to reimburse the county for various shared services agreements. The city currently owes the county $2,769,292.00, and is required to pay it off in installments over the next four years. The proposal does not change the amount the city owes, but instead allows two extra years for it to pay off the debt.

The Disconnect

The disconnect causing confusion for many people is straightforward. Why should Chemung County give additional revenue to its towns and villages – most of which the county claims are fiscally healthy – while the City of Elmira is in obvious fiscal stress and could use all the help it can get?

An example of the root of this disconnect stems from a proposal the county made last spring for a quasi-Council of Governments (qCOG). Instead of creating a body that would serve no purpose other than to foster inter-municipal cooperation, the county’s plan called for having a pot of money that towns and villages could apply for if they were in need. The catch is that towns and villages could only apply for the money if they decreased their reserves to match that of the county (15.5%) because, according to the county, most towns and villages simply have too much money in the bank.

In response to a critique I offered of the qCOG, County Treasurer Joe Sartori wrote a Your Turn piece in April, 2018, found here, where he stated:

The “catch” Mrs. Sonsire refers to is that before receiving funding, a municipality would have to be truly in need. They could not be hoarding excessive amounts of the taxpayers’ money, nor could they waste reserves in a frivolous manner. These are not unreasonable requirements when you consider that we are talking about the taxpayers’ money.

Herein lies the problem.

The level of reserves held by the towns and villages has not changed dramatically since last April, yet the county now proposes giving them 3.4% more in sales tax revenue.

As Treasurer Satori aptly pointed out, taxpayer money should never be dispensed without solid rationale. That rationale is precisely what seems to be missing here,

The Reality

The undeniable reality is that many of our towns and villages are, in fact, experiencing financial troubles.

Take a look at the Town of Elmira. From 2016 to 2017, the Town of Elmira spent 34% of its reserves on operating costs.  Even so, it maintained a 41% fund balance, well over the county’s 15.5% rate that allowed the county to avoid raising taxes for the 14th straight year:

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Slide #5 from Tuesday night's presentation

 

Even though a 41% fund balance may sound high, the fact is that the Town of Elmira, like many other municipalities, is facing increasing fiscal stress.

At its regular meeting this July, the Elmira Town Board confirmed it needs to move away from relying on reserves to cover operating expenses (i.e. deficit spending), and disclosed that, if nothing changes, taxes will increase in 2019:

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Excerpt from the Town of Elmira Board’s Minutes from July 16, 2018. A copy can be found here

Of note, Neil Milliken, currently serving as the 7th District Legislator, has this to say on his campaign website in defense of the way sales tax is currently distributed, found here:

“Rather than simply raise resident’s  property taxes to compensate for lost sales tax revenue (the quick and easy option), the County instead instituted a creative plan which improved cooperation between local governments, increased efficiencies long term, and decreased wasteful spending. All this, with ZERO increase in your County and Town of Elmira taxes!”

Unfortunately, unless something changes, a tax increase in the Town of Elmira is exactly what will happen next year.

A second example is from the Town of Veteran. Like the Town of Elmira, the Town of Veteran shows a healthy fund balance of 55% on the graph above, also well above the County’s 15.5%.

However, shortly before Tuesday night’s presentation, the Town of Veteran Board held a budget meeting where the possibility of a tax increase for 2019 of up to 133%(!) was discussed, due in large part to the same problem facing the Town of Elmira – its revenue stream has been diminished. Minutes from the budget meeting were not kept, but this information has been confirmed Anthony Pucci, a candidate for legislator in the 1st District, who was present.

I have pointed to the fiscal stress of other municipalities in previous blog posts, but will briefly recap them here:

*In 2016, Town of Horseheads Supervisor Mike Edwards attributed the town’s new tax levy directly to the sales tax plan, as shown here.

*Southport Town Supervisor David Sheen, now a candidate for Chemung County Deputy County Executive, announced that plans for infrastructure projects and buildings are on hold, and Southport taxes will likely go up in coming years as a direct result of the way sales tax revenue is distributed, as shown here.

*The Town of Chemung laid off its entire highway department earlier this year, a move Chemung Town Supervisor George Richter stated was made necessary in part because of the lack of sales tax revenue, as shown here.

*Elmira Mayor Dan Mandell along with Elmira Manager Mike Collins has been adamant that despite offsets from shared service agreements with the county, the sales tax plan has had a significant negative impact on the city’s finances, as shown here.

The bottom line is that the the County can’t have it both ways.

If the towns and villages are not experiencing fiscal stress, then, as Treasurer Sartori said in his Your Turn last April, the county should not “give away” tax dollars:

“Win or lose, I would like to invite Mrs. Sonsire to spend a day in the Treasurer’s Office next January, prior to the foreclosure deadline, to see the human toll of excessive taxation. To see the people trying to stave off foreclosure by entering into last-minute installment agreements. She could ask these people if they are okay with municipalities holding their tax dollars in reserve. She could get their thoughts as to whether the county should give away their tax dollars without requiring reasonable restraint with regard to spending.”

If, on the other hand, the towns and villages need help – as so many people have pointed out – then the county should be commended for trying to find a solution.

But where does the City of Elmira fit in to all of this?

The one thing everyone seems to agree upon is the City of Elmira remains on the brink of a financial crisis. Even with a 17% property tax increase along with a hike in sanitation fees, major structural changes must be made to the city’s budget and revenue for it to survive, let alone thrive.

Despite this situation, the county’s proposed sales tax plan does not call for any increased revenue going to the city. It is clear that allowing two additional years to pay its debt to the county will help, but it simply doesn’t go far enough.

This aspect of the proposal leads back to the disconnect. If the towns and villages are, for the most part, fine, why help them? Instead, the entire 3.4% sales tax increase should go the city to help place it on stable footing and avert a major financial disaster.

Again, if its true the towns and villages need help, the county should just say so. At least the proposal would then make sense and we could figure out a fair way to allocate resources among all of the municipalities that need help.

Why lock the plan in for six years?

In 2013, Chemung County felt its financial future was so bleak that it needed to take money from the municipalities and the City of Elmira. This year, sales tax revenue is (thankfully) up, exceeding predictions by almost 5%.

However, as with any economic marker, sales tax revenue can be volatile, and today’s booming economy that is fueling it at least in part could take a downward turn at any time.

Entering into an agreement that lasts six years is riddled with risk. The 2013 plan was not implemented until 2015, meaning we have only been under it for two years yet changes likely need to be made. Why not agree to a shorter period such as two or three years to see how things go?

Why October 15th?

At the presentation, Santulli and Krusen were clear that their proposal is off the table if the city does not agree to it by October 15th. In the absence of an agreement, the current plan will expire, resulting in even greater harms to the city than it currently faces.

However, in the letter from Krusen attached to the January CGR report and cited above, the county had planned to simply extend the current agreement out for one or two years to gather additional data about how things were working.

Is there a reason why a deal this important needs to be rushed? Wouldn’t it be more prudent to be thorough as opposed to expedient?

Public input is the way to go

Finally, even though the legislative chambers was filled to near capacity on Tuesday night with elected officials from the city and other parts of the community, as well as most of the candidates running for local office this fall, no questions or comments from the audience were allowed. Santulli explained at the start of the presentation that it is standard practice to not allow such audience participation during committee meetings.

Under these circumstances, i.e. the coupling of an issue this important with an expectation that the legislature could be asked to vote on the proposal as early as next week, allowing questions and comments from people seeking to better understand the changes and its underpinnings would have been appreciated by those in attendance.

Nonetheless, the county can call for a public hearing on their proposal so that elected officials and people trying hard to understand what it means can have their questions answered. Anything short of that leaves the community disenfranchised on a decision that could impact all parts of our county for the next six years.

Christina Bruner-Sonsire is an attorney in Elmira and candidate for Chemung County legislature.

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

For the past year, the question of whether sales tax revenue is fairly and sensibly distributed among Chemung County, the City of Elmira and the rest of Chemung County’s municipalities has been discussed extensively.

The reason sales tax distribution has been such a hot issue is twofold.

First, the “Financial Restructuring Plan”, enacted by Chemung County’s Legislature in 2013 to allow the county to take a progressively greater share of sales tax revenue from its municipalities, expires at the end of November. This means Chemung County’ s executive and its fifteen legislators have an opportunity make changes to the plan later this year if they feel it is necessary.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, there are an unprecedented number of people running for office in Chemung County in 2018, many of whom have been outspoken about the need to adjust the sales tax plan, as it has resulted in fiscal hardship to many municipalities. This, coupled with numerous municipal officials who have been equally outspoken about the plan’s shortcomings, has resulted in significant attention from the public as we seek to understand how, if at all, the plan can be improved.

Indeed, in a blog post I published on New Year’s Day entitled “Key fiscal issues in Chemung County to watch in 2018“, sales tax distribution is identified as a critical topic for this year:

 

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Sales Tax Redistribution, Shared Services and the CGR Report

In 2013 the Chemung County Legislature voted to approve a controversial measure called the “Chemung County Financial Restructuring Plan” to redistribute the way sales tax revenue is allocated in Chemung County.

Prior to 2013, county government received 50% of all sales tax revenue, and the remainder was split among the City of Elmira and the remaining local towns and villages. However, the redistribution plan allowed an increasing percentage of the money collected through sales tax to go to Chemung County, with a equal reduction in revenue left for the other municipalities.  This is a link to a powerpoint presentation given by Chemung County Administration to the Legislature prior to a vote on the the measure: Sales Tax and Financial Restructuring Plan.

The redistribution plan was met with strong opposition by the City of Elmira as well as a group of local leaders called the Rural Association of Mayors and Supervisors (“RAMS”.) Together they argued that taking sales tax revenue would cause local municipalities to raise taxes, cut services – or both – as the graph (below) shows how much they each stood to lose.

A link to a Star Gazette article from 2014 outlining various positions on the matter can be found here.

(On December 15, 2017) I wrote a blog post about the negative affect of sales tax redistribution on the City of Elmira and other local municipalities, found here. Notably, the City of Elmira recently proposed a 17% tax increase, both the Village and Town of Horseheads levied taxes in 2017 for the first time in more than 30 years, the Village of Van Etten voted (in December, 2017) to dissolve, and most other local municipalities face critical decisions of how to continue to cope with dwindling resources.

On the other hand, Chemung County Deputy Executive Mike Krusen argues that any detriment to the City of Elmira or other municipalities is offset by shared services arrangements the County has brought about in recent years. Specifically, at a December press conference where Elmira’s 2018 proposed budget was announced, Krusen stated that “the relief the county provided the city exceeds what the city lost in sales tax” because “the sales tax formula changes were exceeded by shared services and savings in health insurance costs.” A Star Gazette article describing the press conference is found here.

A report expected to be released in early 2018 from the Center for Governmental Research (“CGR”) will hopefully provide meaningful economic feedback and metrics by which to evaluate the impacts of both the 2013 sales tax redistribution plan and shared services arrangements developed during that time, helping local leaders and the public figure out how to ease some of the growing fiscal burden currently faced by many local municipalities. An article describing the process using CGR can be found here.

 

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Graph from 2013 showing the plan’s estimated impact on Chemung County’s municipalities

The CGR report, released in January, 2018, included a list of concerns from municipal officials about the impact reduced sales tax revenue from the county has had on them since the plan was enacted:

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When the report was presented to the community, it was accompanied by a letter from Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen to County Executive Tom Santulli and County Legislative Chairperson Donna Draxler.

The letter stated that despite the concerns in the CGR report set forth above, the county did not intend to make any changes to the sales tax plan until at least 2019 in order to allow for further studies of the current plan’s efficacy.  Specifically, it stated:

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“Since 2018 marks the last scheduled sales tax formula adjustment and the full impact of these modifications need further observation and monitoring it would not be prudent to consider any further adjustments to the County sales tax formula that is current law. There should be an extended period for additional review of impacts to municipal services, property taxes and reserve accounts to determine the full impact of formula adjustments.

This review function can best be accomplished through the development of a Council of Government structure that creates a financial review sub-committee. The review committee support function can be housed in the County Treasurer’s office. Such expanded responsibilities should be funded by the County with agreed upon financial metrics jointly developed by all municipalities and reported out by the year end after the proceeding years fiscal results have been evaluated. The first report would be available in the fall of 2018 covering results from 2017 and 2018 the last year of the formula adjustments would be reported in the fall of 2019.”

 

In an article published in the Star Gazette just after the CGR report and letter were released entitled “Chemung County sales tax shift working, Elmira still sinking“, Santulli stated:

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“CGR took a snapshot of how we are doing today. The health of governments is the story, except the City of Elmira, Towns and villages have fund balances that are more than adequate. This is a positive and to their credit.”

In other words, as of the start of 2018, the position of the Chemung County Executive’s Office was clear: the sales tax plan is working, and changes – if any – will not be made until at least 2019.

Many municipal officials have been outspoken about the need to change the plan for years:

*In 2016, Town of Horseheads Supervisor Mike Edwards attributed the town’s new tax levy directly to the sales tax plan, as shown here.

*Southport Town Supervisor David Sheen, now a candidate for Chemung County Deputy County Executive, announced that plans for infrastructure projects and buildings are on hold, and Southport taxes will likely go up in coming years as a direct result of the way sales tax revenue is distributed, as shown here.

*The Town of Chemung laid off its entire highway department earlier this year, a move Chemung Town Supervisor George Richter stated was made necessary in part because of the lack of sales tax revenue, shown here.

*Elmira Mayor Dan Mandell along with Elmira Manager Mike Collins has been adamant that despite offsets from shared service agreements with the county, the sales tax plan has had a significant negative impact on the city’s finances, as shown here.

Similarly, several candidates for county office have echoed the call for an adjustment to the sales tax plan. Aside from my New Year’s Day post cited above, I have discussed this issue in detail in blog posts shown here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here and in an Op-Ed to the Star Gazette, shown here.

Jerome Emanuel, a candidate for Chemung County Executive, states on his website’s platform page that “…sales tax redistribution…has caused the local governments to levy higher taxes. The county did this to avoid raising county taxes”, shown here.

Likewise, Sheriff Chris Moss, also a candidate for Chemung County Executive, lists sales tax redistribution of sales tax as his top platform item, stating here that:

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“The reallocation of county sales tax revenue that occurred over a 4 year period has had a detrimental effect on local municipalities, while the County has touted a 0% property tax increase over the past 13 years. I will restore the sales tax revenue formula to its original percentages for certain municipalities and partially restoration to others.

Municipalities that have paid Police or Fire Departments (City of Elmira, Village of Horseheads, Village of Elmira Heights and the Town of Elmira) will be restored to their original allocation immediately, sales tax reallocation for all other municipalities will be restored by 50% over a (4) year period.

One of the original cornerstones upon which county government was created was to establish law and order, Chemung County needs to adopt a policy whereupon local municipalities can effectively provide and or maintain these crucial services.”

 

Finally, Tony Pucci, a candidate for legislature in the First District, addressed the issue in a Star Gazette Op-Ed, shown here, and many other legislative candidates have made sales tax redistribution issue cornerstones of their campaigns.

Despite all of these concerns, the Chemung County’ Executive Office’s position on the matter has not appeared to change – until now.

Indeed, at an April 9, 2018, meeting of the legislature, Santulli offered extensive remarks about the positive fiscal health of Chemung County’s municipalities aside from the City of Elmira, and proposed a quasi-Council of Governments that would be inconsistent with a reallocation of sales tax revenue. Santulli’s full remakrs can be viewed below:

Then, on July 12, 2018, Krusen published an Op-Ed in the Star Gazette entitled “Facts about Chemung County’s Tax Plan” wherein he stated:

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“The (sales tax) plan has been effective in that it has provided greater financial stability to the county and lowered excessive municipal fund balances. Our governments continue to work more cooperatively and have held the line on spending. Much credit goes to our local government leaders for answering the call to be even more resourceful with taxpayer monies.

While the decision has not pleased everyone, it is clear that this plan has increased cooperation and has created greater opportunity to work together and provide public services more efficiently. Now that is a plan we should all be able to get behind.”

 

The foregoing was laid out to explain why a recent development from the county is so interesting – even perplexing.

According to a Facebook post by Moss published yesterday and shown below, the Chemung County Executive’s Office is pushing for the legislature to vote in favor of a new sales tax plan in early September:

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If the facts in Moss’ post are accurate, it begs many important questions:

*Why has the Chemung County Executive’s Office been so adamant that the current sales tax plan is working, if it now wants to make sudden changes that will remain in effect for five years?

*Why was this new approach laid out in a private partisan caucus following the legislature’s meeting rather than on the record so that the public could be involved in a discussion of an issue that has already evoked so much interest?

*Why would a vote as important as this happen days before the primary and just months before the general election?

*How would the new plan work in conjunction with recent proposal by the Chemung County Executive’s Office for a quasi-Council of Governments (COG), as the proposed COG plan calls for limits on reserves yet the new sales tax plan would allow those reserves to potentially grow?

*Why has the county decided against the approach it set forth in the letter accompanying the CGR report wherein it would wait until 2019 before making changes to the plan?

*Why does the new approach call for the municipalities (aside from the City of Elmira) to only have a 3.4% increase in their sales tax allocation? Have any new studies regarding sales tax distribution been done since the CGR report was completed that provide rationale for these numbers?

A far better plan would be for the Chemung County to extend the current sales tax plan out for at least six months, or even a year, to see who is elected in November and let them decide how to best address this matter. In the end, this new approach may prove to be a fine, workable solution. But, pushing something through right now is highly questionable given everything laid forth above.

 

Christina Sonsire is an attorney in Elmira and a candidate for Chemung County Legislature

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

The following post was written by both Christina Sonsire, a candidate for Chemung County Legislature in the 7th District and administrator of the Chemung County Matters blog, and Tony Pucci, a candidate for Chemung County Legislature in the 1st District.

As we campaign in our respective districts, one of the concerns that residents express is the lack of access to affordable and reliable high-speed Internet access, particularly in the rural areas.  It has become clear to us that what many in this country take for granted as an essential utility for enhancing our personal and professional lives remains unavailable for a significant number of residents in Chemung County.

What steps has Chemung County taken to ensure that all of our residents have broadband access? How effective have these steps been? What can be done to address the problem?

In November 2010, almost eight years ago, the Chemung County Legislature passed a resolution authorizing development of a “Regional Open Access Fiber Optic Backbone” in conjunction with Schuyler and Steuben counties.

Each county committed local taxpayer monies, along with a significant investment from Corning, Inc., to build out this foundational backbone that became known as the Southern Tier Network.

According to the STN website, “the network was built to support the needs of public safety, improve broadband access in rural areas, increase competition and the level of telecommunications services throughout the region….”

The network has now been completed; however, broadband access remains woefully inadequate in many areas.

On June 4, 2018, we attended a meeting of the Chemung County Legislature during which representatives of ECC Technologies presented their Chemung County Broadband Assessment, confirming that Internet access in Chemung County lags behind other urbanized counties in New York state. A link to ECC’s full report is found here.

Almost 1,300 local residents completed the survey. The results are troublesome to say the least. Over 80% responded that Internet access “is very or somewhat important to their ability to earn a living or quality of life.” A staggering 90% stated that having a choice in providers is important.

However, many of our neighbors have neither access nor choice. The ECC report shows that nearly three quarters of respondents would consider switching providers if they could; 38% are unable to purchase the speed of broadband service they need; 34% with someone in school report having trouble completing homework; and 15% have no access to the Internet at all.

We found one comment especially troubling. Lacking Internet access, one person wrote, “I’ve had to sit in the McDonald’s parking lot with my children in order for them to do their homework.” This is a situation that residents in rural communities must not accept as normal.

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A graph from the ECC report showing the respondents with school age children who have difficulty completing assignments due to lack of Internet access.

 

Of equal concern is the lack of download speed.  New York State defines true broadband as a download speeds of 100Mpbs, but considers 25Mbps as reasonable broadband for rural areas. The ECC survey revealed that very few residential properties come close to meeting those standards, as shown below.

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A graph from the ECC report showing the lack of adequate download speed at residential properties in Chemung County

 

 

After nearly eight years of effort and financial investment, why hasn’t more progress been made to deliver high-speed broadband access to the rural areas of the county?

The Broadband Assessment combined with the many negative comments from Chemung County residents should have initiated town hall meetings by all legislators in each respective district to inform residents directly on this important issue.

From our view, being accountable to the residents of Chemung County means making sure that there is adequate follow-through on critical issues affecting quality of life, such as reasonable access to the Internet.  Significant taxpayer dollars were used to build the network. If it is not working as promised, county lawmakers have a duty to let the community know what went wrong, and take steps to address it immediately.

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

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I have spent the past two months knocking on doors across the Seventh Legislative District, comprised primarily of the Town of Elmira, allowing me to learn firsthand what my neighbors think about our community, and also hear their many interesting and exciting suggestions for ways things could improve.

Through these conversations, it has become abundantly clear we have a near consensus about one thing: to finally turn things around in our community, we must squarely address the many serious problems facing the City of Elmira.

Most residents seem to like living in the Seventh District. Having our own police and fire departments provides us with a sense of safety. Our highway department works hard to make sure our needs are not only met now, but future problems are anticipated and addressed. The Town’s ample recreational and social events – including numerous youth sports teams and summer camps, weekly concerts in Pirozzolo Park and a tremendous variety of near-daily happenings at the Community Center – greatly enhance our quality of life. Put all of this together with a supervisor and board that are both responsive and fairly progressive, and you are left with the recipe for a great community.

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However, it is artificial to separate the Town of Elmira from the City of Elmira in any meaningful way.

The two municipalities share a miles-long border. Many town residents, including myself, work in the city or send our children to school there, and many city residents do the same with respect to the town. Nearly everyone who lives in the town and the city traverse into the the other frequently for errands such as appointments, recreation and social activities. In other words, our two communities are inextricably intertwined. There is simply no other way to view it.

Much more fundamentally, the City of Elmira defines our community. When we travel out of the area and are asked where we are from, people from the town and the city all say “Elmira”. By that we mean the community as a whole, not just our own small subset of it. Helping us get to a place where we can say “I am from Elmira” with unequivocal pride should be the goal of every elected official, and must remain so until that goal is finally and fully achieved.

Fortunately, there are many great things happening in the City of Elmira right now thanks to local visionaries who are working hard and making a noticeable difference. Jim Capriotti’s developments, including the Finger Lakes House, are doing a lot to revitalize the look and feel of downtown Elmira.

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The announcement that Robbie Nichols will bring professional hockey back to the First Arena next season does a lot for community spirit, and will hopefully help bring about a sale of the Arena from the Chemung County IDA.

Elmira Downtown Development, under the outstanding leadership of Jennifer Herrick, has recently hosted scores of fun community events such as the Alive After Five series, the Wisner Market, and the Elmira Street Painting Festival.

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People are enjoying the Chemung River more than I have ever seen in my lifetime thanks to Jim Pfiffer and the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed, the Civil War Prison Camp project has grown exponentially, helping us all to learn more about the place we call home, and Nick Difasi and Nick Wieder are working hard to breathe new life into Elmira’s beautiful Federal Building on Church Street.

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With a brand new building going up on Water Street and the announcement that a medical school is well-positioned to be constructed in downtown Elmira (wow – a potential game-changer!), it is clear that something very, very good is afoot.

However, it is equally clear that Elmira’s problem’s are deeply pervasive and very serious. In fact, an article published on July 13, 2018 in the USA Today identifies Elmira as the city hardest hit by poverty in New York, stating:

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New York: Elmira

  • 2010-2016 increase in concentrated poverty: +19.6 ppts (18.2% to 37.8%)
  • 2010-2016 increase in concentrated poverty: +2,677 people (2,302 to 4,979)
  • 2010-2016 avg. annual GDP growth: -1.4% (New York: +1.2%)
  • Unemployment: 10.9% (poor neighborhoods) 4.8% (all other)

Many cities in upstate New York struggle with slow and even negative economic growth and few U.S. metro areas reported a larger economic contraction than Elmira, New York. The metro area’s GDP shrank by an annual average of 1.4% between 2010 and 2016, even as the state and national economies grew at average annual rates of 1.2% and 2.0%, respectively.

Over the same period, the share of poor metro area residents living in a neighborhood characterized by concentrated poverty more than doubled from 18.2% to 37.8%.

It is going to take strong leadership and a lot of courage on the part of Chemung County lawmakers for there to be any chance to create lasting change. The current city officials are not to blame for the metrics highlighted above, nor are their predecessors. Many factors have come together to create a rough situation for Elmira, and we need all hands on deck – and united – to have any chance of fixing it.

But what specifically will that take?

Reallocation of sales tax monies between the city and the county.

The 2013 sales tax agreement (described in a prior blog post here) continues to disproportionately harm the city. Regardless of any financial offsets the City may enjoy from shared services contracts with the county, two key factors remain:

*38 percent of properties in Elmira, including large entities such as Elmira College, Arnot Ogden Medical Center, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Elmira Correctional Facility, the Elmira Psychiatric Center, numerous churches and schools and all of the Chemung County’s administrative buildings and courthouses, are exempt from taxation.

*Even though Elmira does not receive any revenue stream in return for its services, it is required to provide police and fire protection to these properties. This means that 62 percent of Elmira’s property owners pay for 100 percent of the services it provides.

In other words, Elmira not only gives up a huge portion of its property tax base in order to provide medical, educational, correctional and other services to Chemung County – things that help attract people and jobs – but it also has to pay a tremendous amount of money to to keep these tax-exempt properties safe. These are factors that do not affect any other municipalities in Chemung County to nearly the same degree.

The 2013 agreement expires at the end of this November. Hopefully county officials, including legislators, are willing to at least consider whether an adjustment to the sales tax allocation is warranted.

Payment for the reallocation. 

Of course, any attempt to return a portion of sales tax monies to the city or other municipalities is going to require the county to find a way to pay for it.

The place to look first are the salaries for elected administrative county officials. As  Anthony Pucci, a candidate for legislature in the First District, point out in an Op-Ed linked here, the salaries for Chemung County’s Executive and Legislators far exceed those in similarly-sized upstate New York counties. Reducing the salaries for Chemung County’s 15 legislators from nearly $16,000 to $9,000 would save over $100,000, with additional savings from reductions in pay for the County Executive.

A larger source of revenue savings could result from a careful evaluation of how efficiently county business is being conducted, whether through an internal review or with the help of an outside consultant. Are there further opportunities for shared service agreements aside from those that require public safety consolidation? Can better technology and energy-saving products be installed to help curb unnecessary costs? There are most likely ways to create a leaner, more efficient government, and fresh eyes is a great way to go about discovering them.

Increased city-generated tax revenue.

This is the most obvious – and most sustainable – way to address the city’s problems. In fact, the more revenue the city creates through property tax (not by increasing rates, but rather expanding its tax base) and sales tax, the better off all municipalities in Chemung County are, as an improved Elmira will result in more visitors, higher property values, and less pressure on the county to help out. There is no incentive for county lawmakers to do anything other than prioritize and promote economic growth in the City of Elmira.

These ideas for increased revenue are just sprinkling of what Elmira needs. Fiscal relief combined with something like the Medical School would go a long way toward turning things around, yet issues like opioid abuse, joblessness, child poverty and crime are unquestionably serious matters that need to be prioritized as well.

The positive trends for Elmira highlighted above are a great start. We all need to work together to see where that will lead.

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

Most people connected to Chemung County are aware there is a serious contamination issue on the grounds of Elmira High School and potentially in the school’s surrounding neighborhoods as well. First identified more than 25 years ago, the problem remains largely unmitigated, placing scores of students, teachers, staff, residents and community members at risk for exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Industrial Background

Jim Hare, Elmira’s former mayor and a local historian, recently published an article in the Star Gazetteabout the industrial background of Elmira High School’s property on South Main Street, an area sits in what is now a largely residential area.

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The Preliminary Site Assessment for the Remington Rand Plant site prepared by the Unisys Corporation, the company which has liability for the property, prepared in July 1988, provides in interesting history of the site on South Main St. The property purchased by the Elmira City School District for the new high school had been an industrial site since 1882 when 20 acres of land were donated by John Arnot to encourage business development in Elmira.  The Payne Engine and Boiler works was the first business to locate there.  From 1909-1935 the Morrow Company and the Willys-Morrow Company occupied the site.  From 1935-37 the Elmira Precision Tool Company was there to be replaced by the Remington Rand which lasted until 1972.  In 1977, the Elmira City School District took possession of the northern part of the property.

While there were questions and comments on the street about the site and its history,  in all of the public discussion about building a new school on a site which had been used by industry for nearly 100 years, the risk  of hazardous waste and pollution which might jeopardize students and faculty was never raised as an issue.  Indeed there was no discussion about the exposure to such waste by neighbors of  the property.

In 1952, the State Department of Health informed the Remington Rand that toxic wastes were being discharged to the Chemung River.  In January 1954, a large fish kill resulting from cyanide contamination on the river resulting from nickel plating at the plant was noted.  Further contamination was noted in 1958.  In 1965, Sperry Rand Corporation was notified that elevated concentration of zinc and cyanide were noted in Miller Creek (flows into Miller’s Pond).  By 1967 Sperry Rand had failed to meet abatement schedules to treat contamination problems.

The 1988 Preliminary Site Assessment, referenced by Hare above, provides an incredibly detailed overview of the area’s history. It also includes a table describing the waste produced by Remington Rand in 1967, just ten years before the Elmira City School District purchased the property.

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Public Outcry

To the best of my knowledge, concerns about the environmental safety at Elmira High School (formerly Southside High School) were first raised in the late 1990’s by a group of parents and students over what appeared to be an unusually high number of serious illnesses, including cancers, in young people who attended the school.

Indeed, an article published in the New York Times on on December 27, 2000, entitled “Specter of Cancer Haunts a School; Industrial City of Elmira Confronts Environmental Legacy” detailed the concerns that were raised at that time.

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Years ago they drew little notice, the pond that never freezes, the rainbow of colors glinting off the surface of a creek, the hard-to-pronounce chemicals sprayed, painted and, yes, sometimes spilled around the mile-long stretch of factories on the south side of town.
 

This small Southern Tier city, which promotes itself as the gateway to the Finger Lakes and the place where Mark Twain wrote classics like ”The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” owes much of its existence to the less glamorous might of industry, which in the last century turned out cars, tools, typewriters, warplane components, fire hydrants and much more.

But as Elmira strives to rebound from years of hard times after the decline of manufacturing, residents have begun to question the legacy of all those factories as never before.

They are especially concerned by suggestions that a number of cancer cases reported by former and current students of a high school here are linked to the school, which was built on land that has supported a diverse array of industry from the Civil War to the 1970’s.

The State Health and Environmental Conservation Departments have conducted tests at Southside High School and a neighboring property that is the site of an abandoned plant.

Interestingly, Hare’s recent article included a quote from Dr. Paul Zaccarine, Elmira City School District’s Superintendent at the time the high school property was purchased from Remington Rand, who stated in 1976 that “the positive aspect of having that building put up there does outweigh the negative aspect of using that particular area as an industrial site.”

However, when he was interviewed in 2000 by the USA Today, Dr. Zaccrine had a much different outlook.

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”I wish I could undo it,” says Paul Zaccarine, 71, the school superintendent who oversaw the school’s construction in the late 1970s. Now retired and living in Illinois, he is watching in horror as student after student gets cancer.

”It’s really frightening,” he says. ”That site was the least desirable as far as I was concerned, but because the Remington Rand people had given us the land, the board voted to go ahead and take it. We got it for a dollar or something.”

He says the long-term effects of the industrial waste were never considered. So far, nobody has found any evidence that an environmental study was done before school construction began in 1977.

”We just didn’t know enough about all of that to have it be a concern,” Zaccarine says. ”Every way we looked at it, we just felt it was an opportunity to get a brand-new school with a lot of the facilities we needed. If we had any indication that there was any contamination, we certainly would not have gone ahead with it.”

An (Unfulfilled) Promise to Clean Up

As a result of the push by community members, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) began taking soil samples from the high school’s grounds in 2000, a process that continues today, and has taken some steps to protect people who enter the property from coming into contact with what it concedes are toxic subsurface contaminants and vapors.

In 2014, Unisys, company that owns the property and is the responsible for paying all clean-up costs, began investigating the site itself.  Based on what it found, Unisys chose to enter New York State’s Brownfield Cleanup Program. Last summer Unisys worked with the DEC and New York’s Department of Health to remove below ground PCB contaminated soils.

However, the work is nowhere near completion. According members of the DEC at a public forum I attended last month, Unisys plans to remove 28,000 tons of contaminated soil from Elmira High School this summer, as outlined in the DEC’s powerpoint slides. This project will require the use of 35-40 trucks per day/6 days a week starting the day after school ends and finishing just before it resumes again next year. Workers will wear fully protective clothing, the trucks will be sprayed down each time they leave the premises, and the materials will be hauled to a hazardous waste dump.

Of greater concern is the amount of work that will remain uncompleted at the end of the summer. The Brownsfield Clean-Up Program is notoriously slow, and it allows liable parties such as Unisys to delay remediation – i.e. paying for it – for years as the process drags on. The Brownsfield Program also allows companies engaged in remediation to receive tax credits each year, lessening the incentives liable businesses have to complete their work as soon as possible.

Specifically, at last month’s public forum DEC officials stated the investigation into the extent of contamination at the school – a process that started almost two decades ago – will take at least 2 more years to complete, and Unisys will need an indefinite amount of time to mitigate the areas they acknowledge need to be addressed, as shown below.

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What about the Residents?

Unfortunately, the contamination problem at Elmira High School is not likely limited to the school’s grounds. Although to date there has not been a large-scale inspection of the surrounding community, some evidence has begun to emerge that raises serious concerns.

Specifically, John and Joann Siedman, residents of Raecrest Circle in Elmira, recently received a letter from Geosyntec Consultants, a company that is working with Unisys to assess the scope of contamination.

The letter states that environmental samples from the Siedman’s property show toxic contamination, and warns them to take precautions on their property including “washing your hands, avoiding incidental ingestion of of soil during play, cleaning any soil covered tools and minimizing digging or relocating soil in areas where routine flooding occurs…(and keeping) livestock/pets from these areas as well.” Incredibly, neither Geosyntec, Unisys, NYDEC nor any other entity alterted the Siedman’s neighbors about their findings.

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Potential Legislative Actions

This issue highlights why our community desperately needs a strong legislative body.

The grounds of Elmira City School District’s only high school are admittedly contaminated, and many of its residential properties may be as well. As such, a full, immediate clean-up must be a top priority for all elected officials in our county, and the legislature can do a lot to put things in motion.

There are three ways the Chemung County Legislature could make an immediate impact on this issue:

Pass a Strong Resolution

The goal for our community should be an immediate completion of the DEC’s investigation, followed by and/or in conjunction with a full remediation by Unisys. Continuing to implement “interim remedial measures”, i.e. piecemeal clean-up acts that could span a decade or more,  is simply not the answer.

The legislature introduced a resolution last month, but tabled it after members of the community – including myself – stressed during public comment period that it doesn’t go far enough. Last night the resolution passed unanimously.

Specifically, the resolution reads as follows:

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The language of this resolution should be contrasted with a letter signed by nearly 1,100 people affected by this issue – including several sitting Chemung County legislators – that urges New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to go much further. Indeed, the letter asks Cuomo to take the remediation effort out of the Brownsfield Clean-Up program altogether and instead pursue a far more proactive approach.

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We, the undersigned, write respectfully to request that you immediately require all of the toxic site concerns associated with the former Sperry Remington manufacturing site in Elmira, NY to be consolidated into a single site that is given a Class 1 Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site designation: “Causing or presenting an imminent danger of causing irreversible or irreparable damage to the public health or the environment — immediate action required.”

This action is warranted because it has been more than 20 years since high-level toxic pollution was discovered to have migrated nearly 1,000 feet from the former Sperry Remington factory site to Miller Pond in Elmira, NY. Yet, the full scope of that contaminated property’s public health and environmental hazards has neither been fully investigated and delineated nor cleaned up in strict compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements.

The delay in achieving comprehensive clean up in strict compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements is unacceptable given that Elmira High School at 777 South Main Street is built directly on the contaminated site and a responsible party is required to clean it up. In addition, a residential neighborhood adjoining the former factory site has yet to be investigated for toxic pollution threats.

Continued participation in the Brownsfield Clean-Up Program is too slow, and far too much is at stake to allow further delays. Whether the approach outlined in the letter is the most appropriate response remains an open question, requiring the sitting legislators to dig deep in order to figure out what our community needs. What we all should be able to agree upon is that waiting two more years for the investigation alone to be to completed is an absolutely unacceptable way to go.

Conduct an Investigation

As I described in a prior blog post, Chemung County’s charter is riddled with untapped potential as it relates to the legislature.

Specifically, the charter provides that the legislature has the power to:

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[M]ake such studies and investigations as it deems to be in the best interests of the County and in connection therewith to obtain and
employ professional and technical advice, appoint temporary advisory boards of citizens, subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and require the production of books, papers and other evidence deemed necessary or material to such study or inquiry.

What does this mean in terms of the contamination situation? It means the legislature has the power to take the lead in protecting our community. It can hire experts to conduct testing, appoint a commission of local citizens with specialized knowledge in this field, place members of NYDEC and Unisys under subpoena and have them testify under oath at a hearing, and/or demand NYDEC and Unisys produce documents and records that will help our community begin to understand what is happening and how big this problem really is.

This approach is very similar to what is happening at the federal level with respect to injuries and deaths related to Takata airbag inflators. U.S. senators have stated they are undertaking the investigation and hearings to examine the “current manufacturer recall completion rates, the Takata bankruptcy and transition to new ownership under Key Safety Systems, and what all stakeholders including NHTSA are doing to ensure this process continues to move forward.”

That is exactly what the sitting legislators can and should do here. A local entity needs to take the lead in this matter, and the legislature has the requisite power to do it.

Create a true Council of Governments

This issue highlights the need we have for a Council of Governments (COG), with representatives from all levels of local government including the county, towns and villages, the school districts, the sewer district, various public safety and public works entities and others.

If we had a COG in place right now, it would be the logical place to take a massive issue like this, as the contamination problem overlaps many different governmental bodies. Unfortunately, Chemung County’s COG disbanded many years ago, and recent calls for a “quasi-COG” are so riddled political posturing that its hard to imagine it getting off the ground anytime soon.

The legislature should act now to create a true COG that is unentangled by unnecessary components I have described in prior blog posts here and here. The legislators to do need to wait for approval from the Executive’s office. To the contrary, they can – and should – act now.

There has never been a greater need for genuine cooperation than there is at this moment. Chemung County is facing a very serious problem. We need a legislature that is ready and willing to face it head on.

 

Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

Once again, a Chemung County official has accused a local candidate of distorting facts for political gain.

In an article published online today by the Star Gazette, Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen criticized Sheriff Chris Moss, one of Krusen’s opponents in the county executive race, for failing to be honest with the community:

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You should accept that Chris Moss’s Your Turn piece dated April 18 regarding the proposed creation of a Council of Governments is a self-serving distortion of the facts.

As this election season heats up, it will be important that we keep on high alert for the crowd who works through distortion, not fact, as a way to win the hearts of voters. We do not need to look far to see the carnage of these types of elections.

 

I have no involvement whatsoever with Moss’ campaign, and don’t offer this post as support of his candidacy. Instead, the post’s purpose is to point out what seems to be an unfortunate emerging theme.

An unprecedented number of people are running for local office in Chemung County this year. In an attempt to drill down the issues, these candidates – including myself – are discovering things our county government does really well, along with ways the county could improve. Indeed, this type of scrutiny is the essence of what it means to live in a democratic society. People who feel they can help out learn about the issues, share what they learn with voters, and let the voters decide who is best suited to serve.

The way Chemung County does business has not faced this type of scrutiny in a long, long time, as a small number of people have held most of the county-wide elected positions for many years. However, instead of addressing the issues that are being raised and considering whether or not there are new and better ways to do business,  some Chemung County officials have chosen to attack the credibility and veracity of the people raising them.

It is easy to chalk this up to “politics as usual”, and there is some truth to that. But this type of behavior is one reason so many people have lost faith in government and avoid running for office, outcomes that run directly contrary to building a strong, successful community.

By way of example, after hearing Chemung County Budget Director Steve Hoover state that the county will likely be forced to raise taxes in 2019 among other concerns about the county’s fiscal health, Tony Pucci, a candidate for legislature in the 1st District, and I both wrote Your Turn editorials about the matter, found here and here.

In response to what we wrote, Chemung County Treasurer Joe Sartori countered by stating:

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Mr. Pucci has to ignore many facts and distort others to make this representation work. It is unfortunate that political discourse has degenerated to this level.

Sartori used similar language to refute a "Your Turn" piece I wrote last month about the county’s newly proposed plan for a Council of Governments, stating:

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If the voters of Chemung County wish to believe the good story that Mrs. Sonsire is telling and choose to ignore the facts, then they should vote for her for county legislature. If, however, they decide that good stories should be left for bedtime and listen to the facts, they may choose to vote otherwise.

This kind of rhetoric is extremely disappointing – and exhausting.

Distorting facts in order to mislead friends and neighbors so that I can get elected to the county legislature is an outrageous mischaracterization of what my entire campaign is about. In fact, the reason I created this blog in the first place is to have a place to share ideas about how to improve the community. Each post contains many links where readers can go to view information and data themselves, and I welcome any corrections to things that I say or do so that the ideas we discover are rooted in fact and as accurate as possible.

Change is hard, and can be uncomfortable – but it is also necessary and inevitable. It is too bad that some of our local leaders are choosing to attack those looking for solutions rather than work together to find out how we can make Chemung County a better place to live.

Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

Without question, 2018 is shaping up to be a historical year in Chemung County. With more than thirty people running for seats in the legislature, and four candidates for county executive, our community will have a unique opportunity to fully evaluate how  local government functions, and consider whether there are new and better approaches for us to undertake.

Yet, envisioning what the future might hold requires we first have at least a cursory understanding of how our system developed.

Prior to 1974, Chemung County was governed by a board of supervisors comprised of town supervisors and other municipal leaders. The board members’ votes were weighted on the basis of each municipality’s population in an attempt to allow all county residents to have as fair and equal representation as possible.

According to Tri-Counties Genealogy, the first board of supervisors consisted of Samuel Minier, of Big Flats; Timothy Wheat, of Catlin; Jacob Swartwood of Cayuta; John G. Henry of Catharine; Green Bennitt of Dix; John W. Wisner of Elmira; Albert A. Beckwith, of Southport; Asahel Hulett of Veteran, with John Wisner of Elmira serving as chairman.

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Photograph of the 1920 Board of Supervisors. Image from the Chemung County Historical Society. 

 

On January 1, 1974, Chemung County residents voted to adopt a county charter, replacing the board of supervisors with a county executive and a 15-seat legislature. In doing so, Chemung County became one of 17 (out of 62) counties in New York to operate under a charter. Two additional counties subsequently adopted charters, bringing the total number of “charter counties” to 19.

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Table from New York’s Division of Local Government Services

 

As our current form of government is still in a relative state of infancy, we have just begun to test the boundaries of what the charter allows for in terms of local governance.

At the outset, only a small number of people have served in the executive and legislative branches due to our lack of term limits and very little turnover in these positions. Indeed, as shown below, the position of county executive has only been held by five individuals since it was created.

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And, in the 7th District where I live and am running to serve as legislator, the legislative seat has been held by one man and his son from the time the legislature was created in 1974. In other words, no one outside of a single family has ever represented the 7th district in the legislature.

Exploring what Chemung County can do to bring about positive change under our current charter is, however, about much more than who sits in the elected seats. The charter itself is riddled with untapped potential, specifically as it relates to the legislature. Indeed, it says the legislature – not any other branch of local government – shall be the policy-determining body of the county.

The charter further provides that the legislature has the power to:

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[M]ake such studies and investigations as it deems to be in the best interests of the County and in connection therewith to obtain and employ professional and technical advice, appoint temporary advisory boards of citizens, subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and require the production of books, papers and other evidence deemed necessary
or material to such study or inquiry.

Understanding where we came from is a critical part of determining where we are headed. When our community decided to adopt the charter in 1974, it deliberately included provisions to allow for a strong, proactive legislative body to act as a balance and check on the executive branch.

There are many smart, dedicated people who desire the opportunity and honor to serve on the legislature. It would be great to see what a fully utilized legislative branch could do toward helping to restore our community.

Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

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In 2010, John Burin was well into his tenure as Manager for the City of Elmira. Asked to provide Chemung County with fiscal data, Burin created a document entitled “Every Number has a Story“, found here.

Although many things have changed regarding the economic situations in both the City of Elmira and Chemung County since Burin created the document, it nonetheless provides many insights into the obstacles facing Elmira. It is necessary reading for anyone trying to figure out why Elmira is in such a tough fiscal position and, more critically, what can be done to help fix it.

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Photo of John Burin from the Star Gazette.

In his cover letter to the document, Burin, who has also served as Elmira’s assessor and is a past member of Southern Tier Economic Growth and the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency, encouraged Chemung County to give him an opportunity to participate directly on a task force created to analyze municipal income and expense:

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“Although you have requested financial data from each municipality, I have attached information that is unique to the City and requires an understanding before income and expense data can be accurately analyzed. As you review the attached information I am confident that you will conclude that a simple comparison of funds/expenses with other municipalities is insufficient. Every number has a story that needs to be part of your analysis and I would welcome the opportunity to be an active member of your committee to ensure your understanding of the City’s data.”

Burin is now a candidate for Chemung County legislature in the 9th district, as described here, in part because he recognizes the critical need for improved relations between the City of Elmira and the Chemung County.

Of note, I met Burin for coffee recently to talk about his experiences as manager and to get a better sense of why he wants to serve on the legislature. While we were talking, he asked why I, a candidate for legislature in the 7th district that encompasses most of the Town of Elmira, am so interested in what happens in the City.

It’s a fair question, and one I have been asked numerous times over the past few months.

The answer is straightforward and quite simple:

*Elmira is our county seat and the center of our community. We are never going to move forward Chemung County forward until we improve its financial condition, which will in turn lead to increased jobs and reduced crime throughout the County.

*Nearly all of the children who reside in the 7th Legislative district will attend school in the City of Elmira at some point, and a substantial number of adults work there. The Town-City border is an artificial line most of us cross every day. Improving conditions in the City benefits everyone, not just the people who live there.

*As I have begun talking to residents of the 7th Legislative district about the issues, the thing I hear most frequently is a concern about increased crime, something people tend to relate to conditions in the City. Whether the data supports this so-called “crime creep”, the perception that problems in the City adversely affect the Town is real. This perception impacts everything from quality of life to real property values, and can be addressed by making improvement of the City a priority.

*Finally, if the City of Elmira is forced to outright dissolve – something that would require a vote by the City’s residents – all property north of the Chemung River would revert to the Town of Elmira and property south of the river to the Town of Southport. As such, residents of those municipalities have a heightened incentive to work toward improving the City’s situation, as its problems would not simply disappear if it dissolves.

Fixing this mess will take a team approach, as we all have a lot to gain.

Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

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The Chemung County Legislature’s meeting on April 9, 2018, was far from mundane.

What appeared on the face of the agenda to be a typical meeting of the full legislature, where most issues have been ironed out in committees ahead of time, instead began with a nearly hour-long presentation by Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli.

One of the purposes for Santulli’s presentation was a proposal by him and Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen for the re-creation of a Council of Governments, an inter-municipal body that existed more than a decade ago to help encourage and facilitate cooperation among elected officials and other local leaders from Chemung County’s various municipalities.

 

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Santulli’s proposal is ostensibly a good thing, as increased governmental cooperation is something our community desperately needs. In fact, re-creating a Council of Governments is something I have written and spoken about on numerous occasions over the past six months.

In an Op-Ed published in the Star Gazette on February 2, 2018, entitled “Cooperation is Crucial for Solving Elmira’s Fiscal Crisis“, I wrote:

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Previously, a group called the “Council of Governments,” consisting of local elected officials from all levels of government across Chemung County, existed to deal with major issues like this. What happened to that group? Maybe it’s time to resurrect it so that all stakeholders have equal standing to voice their concerns and offer collective solutions. Could there be a better time to do this?

I made a similar suggestion in Chemung County Matters blog post from March 8, 2018, called “Economic Issues Spur Interest in Local Government“:

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With respect to cooperation, we need to find ways to solicit genuine input from all levels and all types of government. Some of the issues that are certain to be discussed in coming years – further municipal consolidation, sales tax distribution, countywide public safety (i.e. police and/or fire) agencies – affect everyone who lives in Chemung County.

Many years ago there was a group called the Council of Governments. It included representatives from county government, city government, town and village boards, school boards, the library district, etc. Unfortunately that group no longer exists, nor does the cooperative spirit it fostered. Bringing back COG or something similar could be a great first step toward big-picture thinking on these matters.

 

The re-creation of a Council of Governments is without question a necessary step toward fostering the cooperative spirit we need to allow our community to flourish.

However, tonight’s proposal unfortunately came with a catch.

Unlike nearby counties that utilize their Councils of Governments for the sole purpose of cooperation (the mission of Schuyler County’s council is to “provide a forum for discussion and negotiation leading to agreements for increased efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and improved quality of government services”, and the Tompkins County’s council is “organized to provide a forum for discussion and negotiation leading to agreements for more efficient and fiscally responsible delivery of government services), the version proposed by Santulli includes numerous barriers to participation and a set of fixed rules municipal leaders must accept in order to come on board.

At the onset, Santulli stated tonight that leaders from the City of Elmira will not be invited to participate. This aspect alone is enough to render the plan flawed, as cooperation among county and city leaders is one of the things our community needs most. Excluding Elmira – our county seat and the center of our community – from participating in county-wide governorship reveals that this plan is unlikely to succeed.

Moreover, the proposal sets forth a number “rules”, as Santulli calls them, that participants must agree to in order to participate. Some of the requirements regarding financial transparency and public disclosure of municipal financial statements make a lot of sense and are not likely to be met with substantial pushback.

However, other rules involve specific governing decisions such as the way to fund capital projects or to insure against financial calamity – things that arguably fall squarely within the discretion of elected municipal leaders rather than county officials. This top-down approach must be contrasted with Tompkins County’s Council of Governments, a group that has produced a long list of cooperative initiatives described here.

Although the suggested participatory rules may be based on sound economic rationale, leading off a proposal for cooperation with things potential members must do or agree to in order to partake is a tough way to start out.

Chemung County has a lot of great things afoot right now, yet it is apparent that many others demand our immediate attention. Elmira’s fiscal crisis, ownership of the Arena and the increasing pressure on many towns and villages to do more with less are not going to simply go away. Instead, these issues require genuine leadership and cooperation from all levels of government. Nothing less will do.

This is a video clip of some of Tom Santulli’s remarks at the April 9th meeting. Discussion of the Council of Governments begins around 6:35. But, the entire clip is important, as it demonstrates why fostering true cooperation may be a lot more challenging than it sounds.

 

Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

Originally written March 16th, 2018

On Thursday Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli and Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen released a statement through the county’s website, blaming Elmira’s fiscal crisis on a “failure of leadership on the part of the Mayor and City Council.”

This is their statement:

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What caused the 17% property tax increase in the City of Elmira? Quite simply it was a failure of leadership on the part of the Mayor and City Council.  By the way, with the Sanitation fee hike, the overall increase is closer to 25%.

The seeds for this failure were planted by the previous administration of former Mayor Susan Skidmore. In 2014, the City closed its books with a $1 million loss and a year-end (fund balance) reserve of $2.2 million.  This was followed by an additional loss of $2.63 million in 2015.  (See NYS Comptroller report). Fiscal issues remained unresolved as the departing Skidmore administration left the incoming Mandell administration a 2016 budget that resulted in a $2.4 million loss. Within this three-year period, there were more than $6 million in losses, which eliminated City reserves and replaced it with a negative fund balance of nearly $3 million.

So where did the Mandell administration go wrong? First, County officials urged the City to develop a financial recovery plan that would involve a substantial effort for our two governments to work together (see Mandell email and prepared speech). Unfortunately, the Mayor chose a different path. Rather than be bold, as he had promised in his campaign and suggested in his email dated September 2016, he instead chose to significantly raise taxes and not move forward with any new-shared services with the County.

Before we go further let us be clear, the County’s sales tax reallocation plan DID NOT cause the City’s fiscal problems or result in the City’s 17% property tax increase. In fact, the County’s assumption of City expenses for several departments and services resulted in greater savings for the City. This has been verified by an independent third party (The NYS Division of Budget) and accepted as fact by City officials.

Most troubling is that whenever an opportunity presented financial solutions the Mayor failed to lead and those opportunities were lost. The Governor will soon announce the successful winner in the $20 million municipal consolidation competition. We strongly believe Elmira could have been the recipient of the money. At a local public event, the Governor clearly indicated because the County and the City were actively pursuing bringing both administrations together we were a top contender for these monies. Unbelievably, the Mayor and the City Council voted unanimously to not participate in this grant competition. It is unimaginable that the leadership of an insolvent city could turn down such an opportunity.

More recently, County and City leaders met again with New York State officials to explore solutions and potential sources of relief against the City’s deepening fiscal crisis.  Several ideas were suggested and the City response was inaction and silence. Again, the opportunity to be bold as promised by the Mayor rang hollow.

We do not pretend to understand the motives for the Mayor’s failures to seize the numerous opportunities presented.  We do however know the results, which are before you now. Certainly, an unfortunate conclusion when his campaign for Mayor argued for building a stronger and more collaborative relationship with the County centered on enhancing shared services beyond those already in place.  It is important to note that no County official was advocating for the dissolution of the City. Only the citizens of Elmira can make that decision through a public vote.

In closing, it is not that County officials do not get along with City officials as implied, we simply do not like the way they conduct business.  After a very devastating and likely avoidable property tax increase, where City Council literally sat on their hands, we imagine the residents of the City of Elmira do not like the way they conduct business either.

 

This approach is unfortunate for many reasons.

We need legitimate cooperation, not political gamesmanship.

Elmira is the center of our community, and any path forward requires us to find ways to work together in order to finally figure out how to address its issues.  Elmira’s mayor and the members of its city council are like most people who run for local office.  They have chosen to invest a lot of time and energy toward helping make our area a better place to live, and they don’t earn a lot of money – $10,600 for Elmira Mayor Dan Mandell, as opposed to $253,108 earned by County Executive Tom Santulli, and approximately $7,500 for councilmembers – to do it.

The decision by Tom Santulli and Mike Krusen to continue engaging in this kind of vitriolic rhetoric only results in further division between county and city government, and does nothing to help address the number one problem facing our community right now: a largely empty downtown.

Indeed, an ad-hoc group called the “Committee for Elmira” was created last year to address the lack of cooperation between the county and city, urging both entities to find ways to work together. It is made up of local leaders and retired officials including Elmira Councilmember Jim Waters, Elmira Mayor Dan Mandell, Chemung County County Legislator Marty Chalk, retired Elmira Public Works Commissioner Charlie Shaffer, retired Elmira Police Chief Scott Drake, retired Elmira Fire Chief Pat Bermingham, former City Council member Dan Royle and Marc Monichetti, owner of the Elmira Fitness Center.

The Committee issued a statement in December:

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The Committee For Elmira recognizes the importance of a positive, forward-thinking relationship between the County and the City.  What is missing between the two is a trusted dialogue with open communication where motives are clear and proposals are detailed.  We recognize being a government official can wear on patience but patience is exactly what is needed!  Often the two entities are reacting to each other rather than adopting a proactive approach; both need to recognize they are not on different sides but on the same, working toward the common goal of attracting jobs, growth, and sustainable economic vitality.  None of these goals will be achieved without developing that relationship.

Most cities and counties in the country are struggling financially; Elmira/Chemung isn’t singular in that regard.  Often the answer to the fiscal issues is to systematically get more money from the taxpayer by increasing fees and taxes.  Aside from being the worst solution (and certainly not the most popular) it should be the last option, not the first.  Rather the city and county should look for methods to run cost-effective government.  Is that by combining services?  Probably but not certainly!  This committee has not studied whether shared services is the answer; no one has, to our knowledge.  Have there been groups assigned to examine the best and most effective solutions for developing shared services and which ones should be shared?  For example, has a group or committee been established to assess a county-wide police department and if doing so is cost effective enough to justify the change?   Is it more efficient?  Would it provide the same level of service or better?  Would doing so save taxpayer dollars rather than increase costs?  Or have no impact?  Or be better for the employees?  This committee does not have those answers but believe there are people who can easily do so; and should.  Who and how?  Representatives of the very people impacted by a consolidation: the department heads, city/town, village leaders, business leaders, and most importantly, the employees.  A working group with delegates from each segment should be established to look at the feasibility of shared services.  If it can be done, they should be the people providing the direction.  There is no need to waste dollars on studies from outside groups; this would never be viewed as objective and would only serve to build mistrust and skepticism.  Moreover, there must be involvement and input from the people who are affected by these changes for said changes to occur.  This is the only way to eliminate suspicion and ensure the interests and concerns of all are equally weighed.  We urge the city and county to focus on these issues, assign personnel to be responsible for getting things done and set a completion date with follow up to insure a conclusion.

Additionally, we strongly encourage the county and the city to make plans for regular, scheduled meetings to hash out any differences and develop clear strategies for problem-solving, rather than stoop to name-calling and reactive tactics. There will be times of varied opinions and discourse but surely less so if both sides communicate their intentions, motives, plans, and their purposes with the taxpayers and employees in mind.  The city and country have the same goals – the best way to achieve them goal is together.

 

I also addressed this issue in an Op-Ed published by the Star Gazette in January entitled Cooperation is Key to Solving Elmira’s Fiscal Crisis, wherein I argued that “any meaningful remedy to Elmira’s fiscal crisis is going to require genuine cooperation and creative problem solving to discover a new way of doing business.”

We expect our elected leaders to be able to find ways to work together, particularly in times of crisis. Unfortunately, the statement released yesterday by Chemung County’s top administrators is yet another step in the wrong direction.

Sales tax redistribution has undoubtedly harmed the City of Elmira. 

Chemung County faces a tough economic climate. Mandates from Albany are heavy, and upstate areas have struggled to rebound from major losses over the past several decades in the manufacturing sector.

It makes sense that some of the county’s financial burden trickles down to the city, town and villages – but there is no reason for Elmira to be treated in such a harsh manner.

Two key factors are critical to this discussion:

*38 percent of properties in Elmira, including large entities such as Elmira College, Arnot Ogden Medical Center, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Elmira Correctional Facility, the Elmira Psychiatric Center, numerous churches and schools and all of the Chemung County’s administrative buildings and courthouses, are exempt from taxation.

*Even though Elmira does not receive any revenue stream in return for its services, it is required to provide police and fire protection to these properties. This means that 62 percent of Elmira’s property owners pay for 100 percent of the services it provides.

In other words, Elmira not only gives up a huge portion of its property tax base in order to provide medical, educational, correctional and other services to Chemung County – something helps bring huge numbers of people and jobs to our community – but it also has to pay a tremendous amount of money to to keep these tax-exempt properties safe.

Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli and Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen continue to argue that that sales tax redistribution did not harm Elmira because any losses to the city were made up by increased shared service agreements with the county.

This logic is flawed, as shared service agreements could have been reached without forcing the City to give up such a large portion of sales tax revenue.

As I stated in my Op-Ed referenced above, Elmira was able to overcome a similar financial crisis approximately a decade ago. Between 2008 and 2013, Elmira moved from the brink of bankruptcy to a healthy and stable fiscal position, with an average yearly property tax increase of just 1.86 percent.

However, in his overview of the 2013 budget, John Burin, Elmira’s city manager at the time, warned of difficulties to come, stating that “the state tax cap legislation, static aid to municipalities, excessive employer pension contributions as well as legislation restricting a city’s ability to receive revenue for services rendered on a variety of not-for-profit organizations will overtime deplete reserves and bankrupt cities.”

Later that year, the Chemung County Legislature passed a financial restructuring plan that changed the way sales tax revenue is distributed among Elmira and its local towns and villages, adding to Elmira’s mounting financial obstacles. As a result of the restructuring plan, Elmira’s share of sales tax revenue dropped from a little over 12 percent in 2014 to about 9 percent in 2018.

Although the combination of shared-service agreements and sales tax redistribution works for some areas that are not burdened by tax-exempt properties and public safety obligations, it is clearly not working for Elmira. We must find a new path forward.

Strangling the City of Elmira makes no economic sense.

The two greatest sources of revenue for Chemung County are property tax and sales tax, accounting for most of the county’s operational budget.

The decision to take a greater share of sales tax revenue from the City of Elmira and other municipalities has allowed Chemung County to go thirteen years without raising property taxes.  This is ostensibly a good thing, as the last thing upstate New York residents need is a bigger tax bill.

However, that metric is just the start of the analysis.

First, the City of Elmira is not the only  municipality to struggle after the sales tax redistribution plan was passed in 2013. Facing economic stress, both the Village and Town of Horseheads levied taxes in 2017 for the first time in more than 30 years, the Village of Van Etten voted in December to dissolve, the Town of Southport reports increased challenges impacting its ability to provide basic services, and most other local municipalities face critical decisions of how to continue to cope with dwindling resources.

Second, and arguably more importantly, investing in Elmira is critical to generating more sales tax revenue. Every dollar people spend in our community is one less dollar we need to raise through property taxes in order to fund local government. Having a vibrant, bustling downtown would encourage people from outside of the county to come here and spend money. By contrast, creating an economic structure that results in city officials needing to either raise property taxes by 17% or take a 20 million dollar state bailout is a great way to scare potential investors away.

Forward thinking on this issue is a must. We have great infrastructure in downtown Elmira, and infinite potential to turn its fiscal picture around. However, doing so will take full buy-in and cooperation from all levels of government. We simply cannot allow this division to deepen any further.

Christina Bruner-Sonsire

The political climate in Chemung County is very interesting right now.

At last count nearly 30 people have either announced their candidacy for Chemung County Legislature or are giving it very serious consideration, and there are at least three – possibly even four – candidates for Chemung County Executive. This injection of people and energy into local politics means our community will have an excellent opportunity to learn about the issues  from a diverse set of perspectives.

Despite each candidate’s individual concerns and ideas, one common theme has already begun to emerge: Chemung County’s struggling economy, and the way our county government goes about addressing it, has to be the top priority.

For too long our area has been dogged by sluggish economic growth, prompting more and more people to seek ways that they can get involved and make a difference.

Although we are incredibly fortunate to have an outstanding Chamber of Commerce run by innovative, creative thinkers who go a long way toward making our area attractive to both established and prospective economic investors, as well as numerous strong economic development agencies such Elmira Downtown Development and Southern Tier Economic Growth (STEG), we clearly have a long way to go.

Indeed, recent measures of Chemung County’s fiscal health are sobering:

*A report last summer by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed Chemung County was the only area in New York State with declining job growth. The entire report is found here.

*Elmira’s 2.8 percent private-sector employment decline was worst in the state, and placed it among only three other metro areas in the state to record job losses. The rate of job loss here is the highest in New York state – nearly 3 percent over the past year – with a 6 percent drop since 2008 (link here.)

*Personal income growth since 2008 in Elmira was half the United States national annual average for metro areas of 3.2 percent, according to numbers compiled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (link here.)

*Chemung County’s reserves decreased from $30 million in 2011 to a projected level of just $19 million in 2018, and are expected to drop below $10 million by 2021 if no changes are made to the way county government approaches the budgeting process. This decrease in reserves stems from an average yearly budget deficit of approximately $2 million that started in 2011. (Note: this metric was provided by Chemung County Treasurer Steve Hoover during last November’s Legislative Budget Workshop. It is possible the projected loss in reserves for 2018 is now somewhat less severe given an unexpected increase in sales tax revenue generated last year, a figure that was released after the budget passed.)

*Chemung County’s debt has risen by 25 percent, from roughly $40 million in 1999 to over $50 million in 2017, as its expenditures have far outpaced revenues each year. A link to an Op-Ed I wrote in November on this issue is found here.

*Numerous local municipalities are facing hard economic times, including the Town of Horseheads that levied a property tax in 2016 for the first time in 30 years (link here), the Village of Van Ettan that voted last December to dissolve, a measure that will relieve residents of heavy tax burdens (link here), and the Town of Southport that will likely have to raise taxes over the next year or two as it has controlled expenses while seeing revenues its dry up (link here.)

*The City of Elmira was forced to impose a 17% (!) property tax hike at the start of this week, leaving Elmira residents with one of the heaviest tax burdens in New York state (link here.)

*The First Arena – an entertainment venue located in the heart of downtown Elmira – is (a) currently without an prospective; (b) owned by the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency; (c) saddled with considerable debt; and (d) its future is unknown (link here.)

*Town and Village officials expressed their concerns about finding addition ways to deal with dwindling revenue stream to the Center for Governmental Research last year:

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The reasons for Chemung County’s economic hardship are plentiful, driven in great part by a weakened (yet still relatively vibrant) manufacturing sector along with more and more directives from Albany that account for a tremendous portion (roughly 80%) of our county budget.

Last night someone asked me what my vision is for addressing these economic issues, i.e. what are the solutions? In general, I think there are two core principles that can go a long way toward helping: cooperation and empowerment.

With respect to cooperation, we need to find ways to solicit genuine input from all levels and all types of government. Some of the issues that are certain to be discussed in coming years – further municipal consolidation, sales tax distribution, countywide public safety (i.e. police and/or fire) agencies – affect everyone who lives in Chemung County.

Many years ago there was a group called the Council of Governments. It included representatives from county government, city government, town and village boards, school boards, the library district, etc. Unfortunately that group no longer exists, nor does the cooperative spirit it fostered. Bringing back COG or something similar could be a great first step toward big-picture thinking on these matters.

Closely related to cooperation is the need for empowerment of the governing infrastructure we already have, particularly the county legislature. Chemung County’s Charter envisions the legislature as a proactive body, stating:

*”The County Legislature shall be the governing body of the County and shall be the legislative, appropriating and policy-determining body of the County…”, and

*The Legislature shall have the power to…”make such studies and investigations as it deems to be in the best interests of the County and in connection therewith to obtain and employ professional and technical advice, appoint temporary advisory boards of citizens, subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and require the production of books, papers and other evidence deemed necessary or material to such study or inquiry.”

(Emphasis added.) A link to Chemung County’s Charter is found here.

However, several people who have served on the Chemung County Legislature express concern that the opportunity for it to effectuate positive change is not being fully utilized. This concern has led several current legislators to undertake a study of their own rules in order to find ways they can have a bigger impact on policy decisions. At this time it is unclear what, if any, changes will be made.

Every four years we elect 15 legislators to serve our community. It only makes sense that we take full advantage of the ideas and initiatives they bring to the table.

Cooperation and empowerment, along with a frank exploration of the issues, can go a long way toward helping our community really begin to thrive.

Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature

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