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January 4, 2010

My Turn: Tough financial times will make our community more important to us


This week's "My turn" is by new Oneonta Mayor Richard Miller.

On Jan. 1, I was sworn in as mayor. Since the election in early November, I have been meeting with members of the Common Council, the administration and the mayor, as well as attending as many commission and committee meetings as possible.

I am grateful to all concerned for the openness with which they have shared information and perspectives.

I am particularly grateful to John Nader for his efforts over the past four years and during my transition. His shoes will be hard, if not impossible, to fill. The city is in better condition today than when John took office, thanks to his hard work and that of the Common Council and city staff.

The decline of the world, national and state economies has had a significant impact on us as individuals, and on our local governments. Collectively, our society has been living beyond its means. Nationally, the government can print money and run deficit budgets even though they borrow from our future.

At the local level, we cannot do that. The national economic malaise has resulted in flat or declining state support and sales tax revenue, and fewer grant dollars available for important projects.

It is hard to be optimistic about the economy when the federal government, whether or not we as individuals agree, is undertaking the expenses of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, establishing a national health care program and necessarily continuing to react to the credit and banking disaster.

At the local level, we will have to find creative ways to generate revenue and reduce expenses without undue increases in property taxes. Those responsible for the 2010 budget of the city have done yeoman's work to decrease overall expenses and limit property tax increases to 4 percent.

The budget has been balanced, however, by taking almost $900,000 from savings (reserves) and reducing physical plant expenses, practices that cannot continue.

We will confront difficult issues as the current year develops and we begin financial planning for 2011. Already the state has "delayed" our next support payment by almost $230,000.

In my view, we must confront issues such as city/town consolidation, consistent cost-sharing agreements with our not-for-profit organizations, service reductions and health care benefit costs _ issues that have been painful to discuss in the past.

Thirteen years ago, in 1996, for example, a blue-ribbon task force of city and town government and community leaders worked, with staff support from the Center for Economic and Community Development at the State University College at Oneonta, to develop a plan for increasing integration of services leading to consolidation of the two governments.

All concerned agreed with the plan, but only about 25 percent of the recommendations have been implemented. Consolidation offers long-term cost reductions and revenue enhancements. We would be foolish not to pursue them. I will ask my colleagues in both city and town governments to reopen discussions about consolidation.

So, Oneonta faces difficult times. So, too, does every other community in Upstate New York and across the country. We deal with these issues, however, from strength; unusual strength, for that matter.

Our colleges enrich our lives and, despite their challenges, are stable major employers. The Fox/Bassett affiliation ensures high-quality, local health care far into the future. Our schools are in excellent shape, and the city's infrastructure is, with the exception of our streets, in good condition. We have financial reserves that can cushion us in the short-term while being maintained at adequate levels.

Oneonta is perfectly located in the midst of beautiful surroundings and only an hour's drive from two busy airports. Businesses such as Cleinman Performance Partners and SportTech are growing. We have an attractive and increasingly vibrant downtown with such new businesses as Capresso, Karma, The Green Toad and The Fiesta Grill.

The Bresee's project is under way. Our parks system is the envy of other communities of our size, and we have more than 400,000 tourist visitors each year.

While the Oneonta Theatre and Foothills are challenged financially in the short term, they offer a wonderful future for the performing arts.

We have attractive neighborhoods and are well on our way to preserving them by revising our zoning ordinances and increasing code enforcement. We have an extraordinary city staff and Common Council who are dedicated to improving our collective future.

I believe that a consequence of the significant national financial restructuring that is affecting us individually will be that our families, neighborhoods and communities become more important to us. Oneonta is uniquely well-positioned to flourish in this environment.

What could be better? There are problems to solve, but there are even greater opportunities to exploit. I relish the task at hand, and look forward to working with all the good people of Oneonta so that we continue to advance our already wonderful community.

Miller can be reached at City Hall at 432-6450.

To write for "My turn," contact Daily Star Published Tanya Shalor at tshalor@thedailystar.com or 432-1000, ext. 214.