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About this blog

About matters pertaining to Chemung County government. 

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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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