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Guest Column

June 12, 2010

Plan focuses on city's present, future challenges

With my first year as mayor approaching its midpoint, I want to reflect on the status of city government and the challenges that lie ahead.

I am gratified with how well the council, department heads and I have been able to work together towards the common objective of a better city.

Although there have been disagreements, everyone has had their say and we have moved forward despite the outcome.

While some of the disagreements have had their roots in philosophic differences, council actions have confirmed my belief and hope that at the local level, unlike Albany and Washington, we do not have to resolve issues based on political party allegiance.

Aside from the day-to-day business of administering the government, the council and I, with assistance from department heads, have worked to develop a Multi-Year Facilities and Financial Plan.

It has been important that we do this together because, while we may have differences in how to approach our challenges, a common understanding of the city's circumstances is critical. The highlights of the plan follow.

"¢ The city is in a strong financial position based on significant reserves and debt capacity. That said, the city is in its third year of operating deficits with current revenues not covering current expenses and these deficits are projected to grow significantly over the next five years unless we take action.

"¢ Deficits are driven principally on the revenue side by the reduction in state support and sales tax revenues, two of our largest sources of income. On the expense side we face dramatically increasing benefit costs, as well as compensation increases tied to collective bargaining agreements. Costs related to the city's current and retired personnel consume approximately 72 percent of our budget.

"¢ If we can not find ways to increase revenues and reduce costs, we will either consume all of our reserves within four to five years or have to reduce personnel. We will then have no choice but to reduce services expected by our residents.

Property taxes would have to be increased almost 50 percent if we were to look to them as a solution to this issue.

The plan outlines a series of more than 25 actions to be studied and implemented. Each item has been assigned to a department head who will report to and work with the relevant committees of the Council in pursuing these ways to minimize our economic challenges.

Some of these initiatives will not be controversial, as in reducing our energy consumption.

Others will require study, as in finding a more cost effective approach for our health benefit programs. Many will result in debate, as in the possibility that we will begin to charge for services that have been free in the past.

As these conversations become more widely held, I am sure they will draw attention and result in controversy. We have not made economic estimates at this point of the consequences of some of the more controversial issues that must be discussed such as shared services, government consolidation and payments in lieu of taxes for our not-for-profits.

These subjects could have significant consequences and can not be addressed unilaterally, but could have major positive impact for the community, and are under separate review. When we have a better sense of the facts, we will share them with you, however, rest assured that there will be no reluctance on our part in initiating these conversations.

Additionally, the task force working to make changes in our zoning ordinances, and the Charter Review Commission are making steady progress. Important vacancies in Police, Fire, Code Enforcement and Engineering have been filled. Major road improvements on East, Grand and Cherry streets are being undertaken and new playground equipment is being installed in Wilber Park. The Bresee's project is moving slowly but steadily ahead.

As the work of the mayor, council, other volunteers and city professional staff goes forward, I hope you will enjoy the next few months in Oneonta. It's a great time of the year to take pleasure in, and reflect on, this wonderful community.

Our colleges have finished their academic years sending forth a class of 2010 graduates to contribute to our future. The Farmers Market is open on Saturdays and Tuesdays. The second "First Friday" event was held June 4. The Oneonta Theatre has announced an exciting initial set of programs to begin in late July. The Outlaws are playing at Damaschke Field.

New businesses and arts venues have opened downtown and others are receiving investments in their existing facilities. The Otsego County Fair will be held as usual in August. Murals are being added downtown. The Memorial Walkway was dedicated May 31. The American Idol program at Foothills is great fun on Wednesday nights. These are only a few of the wonderful activities taking place. There is a lot to do and be proud of in this community.

There will be difficult decisions to be undertaken in the future. If we make them on the basis of what is best for our community and each of its entities, surely Oneonta will continue to be the place we have all come to love. I look forward to working with you to that end.

Richard P. Miller Jr. is the mayor of Oneonta.

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