Council session turns tense

Ogdensburg City Hall

OGDENSBURG — The first portion of the New York State Financial Restructuring Board for Local Government’s City of Ogdensburg Comprehensive Review Report contained nothing city officials didn’t already know.

“You don’t ask for a comprehensive review if you don’t already know you are in fiscal stress,” City Manager Sarah Purdy said.

The review contains an overview of the city’s fiscal situation and a series of recommendations.

The recommendations include:

n Transferring fire and police dispatching to the county.

n Developing and implementing a shared services plan with neighboring governments.

n Working on transferring its motor vehicle fleet to a leasing plan.

n Seeking labor and health care efficiencies particularly in the city’s fire department

n Transferring ownership of foreclosed properties to the Ogdensburg Land Bank Corporation.

The Financial Restructuring Board offers grants for the city to consider and implement its recommendations.

The city automatically qualified for the review because its average full value property tax rate of $16.85 per $1,000 is above $7.34 per $1,000, which is the 75th percentile of all municipalities in the state.

While the Office of the State Comptroller’s Fiscal Stress Monitoring System gives the city a fiscal rating of “no designation,” the review noted some troubling indicators. Those include a low general fund balance compared to gross expenditures, an operating deficit in two of the last three years, the issuance of short term debt the last three years and high personal service and benefits cost.

The report also cited the city’s demographic and socioeconomic challenges.

The city’s population has decreased by 10 percent since 2000, while a typical city in New York has seen a 0.5 percent increase. In 2016, the median household income in Ogdensburg was $36,832 while a typical city had a median household income of $41,607. The median home value of $68,000 is half of the median home value in a typical city while the four-year average change in property value was minus 1.21 percent. In 2016, the city’s unemployment rate was 9.2 percent and the percentage of households on public assistance was 26.4 percent.

In 2017, the combined county, city and school property tax bill for a home of median value was $3,739 or 5.5 percent of the median home value and 10.2 percent of the median household income. The city portion of the bill is 3.6 percent of median income.

The report also cites the city’s issue with revenue. The city’s largest revenue source is property taxes and it is quickly approaching its constitutional tax limit.

“Maintaining service levels while the city nears its constitutional tax limit is one of the most significant challenges the city faces in its near- and long-term,” the report states. “The city’s 2019 tax margin — the difference between the amount the city did levy and the amount it is legally authorized to levy was only $696,953 or 5.1 percent of the 2019 General Fund Balance.”

Ms. Purdy said she will give a presentation at the City Council meeting on July 8 “and summarize the FRB report and talk about what I propose we do.”

She then will look for input from city council and department heads as they delve into the board’s recommendations.

Ms. Purdy already addressed some of the recommendations in her weekly update.

In regard to the 911 recommendation, Ms. Purdy said the city would need to consider that the dispatchers were also responsible for monitoring the city lockup.

“I don’t think people want us to pay law enforcement officers to watch cameras,” Ms. Purdy said. “They (the dispatchers) do a lot of things.”

She said the shared services portion of the recommendations offered an opportunity to get grant assistance for studying the possibility of changing the city’s form of government.

The city has looked at lease procurement and management for its motor vehicle fleet but has been unable to take action because of a high start-up cost. A grant from the Financial Restructuring Board could help the city get over the cost barrier, Ms. Purdy wrote.

In an interview with the Times, Ms. Purdy said she understood that the county was looking at a fleet management arrangement.

“I would like to learn more about that and see if it was something we could work on with them,” she said.

In regard to labor and benefits costs, all of the city’s five bargaining units are on the last few months of their latest contracts and negotiations will begin soon. Health insurance and labor costs will be a part of the collective bargaining process, Ms. Purdy said.

The city, Ms. Purdy reported, has already transferred property to the Land Bank Corporation and would be making a request to the Financial Restructuring Board for a grant award.

Ms. Purdy said that she is taking the recommendations seriously.

“If the New York State Division of Budget took the time and effort to make a set of recommendations, then we will respect that time and that effort and we will take a look at everything,” she said.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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