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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.