By Michael DePietro
Interim Tribune Editor
Despite numerous cuts, North Tonawanda Mayor Arthur G. Pappas said a property tax increase was imminent as he presented his general, water and sewer budgets for fiscal year 2020 to the Common Council on Tuesday.
The announcement came in the form of a written statement Pappas read to the council:
“My role and the role of all North Tonawanda city officials is to provide needed services to our residents that promote health, public safety, economic growth and opportunity. We must do so in a fiscally responsible manner and in a manner that places as small a burden on taxpayers as possible. I believe this budget does that, but given the difficulty of the times, it still requires increases in revenue. …
“The fact is, cutting things like support for volunteer fire companies or closing Memorial Pool might save a few dollars, but these are important services to our community and the savings did not come close to closing our gap. North Tonawanda city government itself has been doing more with less for years. Our departments are down to a bare minimum of workers since there have been many cuts over the years. Department heads have been asked to reevaluate their budgets more than once this year to further reduce costs and look for efficiency. We implemented a hiring freeze and required any expenditure over $1,500 be approved by the mayor. Yet, these and other steps were not nearly enough to stem the tide, especially taking the following into consideration:
•“State aid was cut this year by 20%.
•“Substantial decrease in sales tax revenue (which was actually on pace to exceed budget projection before the pandemic).
•“The state has not given any projections for revenue sharing.
•“Funding is being lost while expenses are contractual and rising due to step increases
•“Our state retirement costs have gone up 6%.
•“The federal government has not given assurance for stopgaps funding.
“Therefore, the unfortunate reality is that we have no choice but to raise property taxes. I am proposing a 6.52% increase in property taxes and believe this is the most prudent course to fund needed services while minimizing as much as possible the impact on taxpayers. This clearly reverses the trend we have tried to follow in North Tonawanda over the last 12 years, which saw three years of no increase, three years of decreases, and six years of increases of less than 2%.
“What this means is that the general fund balance will increase the tax rate from $13.88 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $14.78. The total budget from 2020 to 2021 is an increase of $321,805. A home assessed at $150,000 will see an increase of $135.71. Water and sewer base rates will increase from $12 to $15. Sewer rate will rise from $4.50 to $5 per thousand gallons. These rates have not been changed in 10 years. …
“I fully understand no one wants to see an increase in their property tax bill and if I had other reasonable alternatives to implement, I certainly would. However, North Tonawanda is experiencing a rebirth because we are not afraid to make difficult choices that ultimately move this community forward. I stand 100% behind this budget as the right way to navigate our way through this pandemic.”
Pappas’ full letter can be found at www.wnypapers.com.
Elsewhere, the council also voted unanimously to allow the city to break New York state’s imposed 2% tax cap. Pappas and council President Eric Zadzilka made assurances they would be scrutinizing the budget to look for more ways to bring the tax hike down.
A public hearing regarding the budget is scheduled for Nov. 2. The council is expected to vote on the budget on Nov. 12.
City Requests Outside Aid
The city unanimously passed a resolution serving as a formal request to Niagara County for $1 million in aid.
Last week, Alderman-at-Large Austin Tylec explained the $1 million figure wasn’t an arbitrary amount. Rather, based on conversations with City Accountant Jeffrey Zellner, the city is looking at a $1 million sales tax revenue gap due to the impact of COVID-19.
There was some dispute among the council members as to how much the county had in its coffers. According to County Treasurer Kyle R. Andrews, the county’s unassigned fund balance for 2019 was $23,309,369. He went on to explain that the county has a fund balance policy requiring a minimum of 6% of the previous year’s appropriations to be maintained to protect its bond rating and to ensure “solid fiscal footing.”
“So anything over and above that amount could be the only amount in which the legislature could authorize to be spent, which amounts to $2.625 million in 2019,” Andrews said. “And I know the budget office is trying to apply that towards the county budget for 2021. We’re a municipality, too and we’ve also been dealing with some turbulent times; and we’re going to do everything we can to come in underneath the New York state property tax cap.”
The resolution was also amended to include a request to the state for a share of CARES Act funding, which the city said it has not received thus far.