ITHACA, N.Y. – Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick presented his 2019 recommended budget to Common Council on Wednesday.
Street maintenance is a priority this year, with the Department of Public Works standing to gain a seven-person crew. Police will not see a bump in pay or staffing under the proposed plan – a point that’s sure to garner pushback.
Under the proposed budget, an owner of a $220,000 home would save about $120 compared to last year, according to the mayor’s budget narrative. The mayor’s plan would increase the city’s overall tax levy while decreasing the tax rate.
The proposed budget will be amended in the coming weeks as Common Council hears from department heads and members of the public, before a vote in early November. In the meantime, here are some highlights from the mayor’s presentation and a rundown of items that will be up for discussion.
Money for streets and facilities
The biggest proposed increase to spending is the addition of a seven-person crew within DPW. The new streets and facilities crew would join the department in March at a total cost of about $450,000. Myrick said he hopes adding an entire crew at once will have a bigger impact on road maintenance than adding new employees individually.
Personnel increases for the police department were notably absent from the proposed budget. The Police Benevolent Association has been pushing hard for higher staffing, and Police Chief Pete Tyler formally requested funds for two additional officers.
Myrick said that with 69 officers, the department already has above average staffing relative to similar cities. He said adding two officers would increase costs substantially without having a dramatic impact on the department’s operations.
Myrick acknowledged that some of the department’s 69 officers have been unavailable to fill shifts in the past year due to academy training and medical leave. He said he wants to see how the department functions with all 69 officers before approving additional hires.
“We should stick with our current levels of staffing, use the C.A.T. Team (community action team), and see what the results are,” Myrick said.
Across departments, personnel costs remain the biggest ticket item. About three-quarters of all city spending goes toward employee pay and benefits.
The mayor’s plan would give salary increases to city employees represented by the five bargaining units with current city contracts: the fire department’s Chief Officers Unit and Professional Firefighters Association, the City Executive Association, and the CSEA Administrative and DPW Units. The Police Benevolent Association does not have a current contract with the city and officers are not slated for salary increases in the recommended budget.
Pay for the city’s lowest-paid employees across departments would increase in step with the living wage, maintaining the city’s designation as a living wage employer.
Beyond personnel, new spending items include childcare at city meetings, funds for the Tompkins County Public Library and Tompkins County Center for History and Culture, and a $50,000 allocation for the REACH project.
Funding would once again be allocated to the Community Outreach Worker Program, Gorge Safety Program and LEAD program, along with several other programs.
Sources of revenue
As proposed, the mayor’s budget lowers the city’s property tax rate by 4.45 percent. The rate in 2018 was $12.14 per $1,000 in assessed property value. The proposed rate for 2019 is $11.60 per $1,000.
The median home value in the City of Ithaca is about $220,000, according to American Community Survey data. The owner of a $220,000 home would owe about $2,552 on their 2019 property tax bill, a savings of about $120 compared to the 2018 rate.
A lower tax rate does not necessarily mean a lower tax bill. As assessed home values increase, so do bills for homeowners. Myrick pointed out that the proposed tax rate is the lowest since 2002. Home values in the area have risen significantly since 2002, so homeowners should not expect to write the same check as 16 years ago.
The proposed budget increases the tax levy by 2.91 percent, from $23 million to $23.7 million. The tax levy refers to the total amount of revenue brought in from property taxes.
The levy is increasing, despite the decreasing tax rate, because the total value of assessed property in the city has grown. New development and a pricier property market have added to the city’s tax base.
Apart from revenue from property taxes, city funds come from sales tax and assessed fees, such as parking and permit fees. Changes to look out for in this area include increases to stormwater and solid waste fees.
The mayor proposed shifting the burden for stormwater funds to large property owners, especially big box stores and Cornell University. As proposed, owners of one-, two- and three-family homes would pay $57 into the stormwater fund, a $9 increase over 2018. Larger property owners, meanwhile, would increase their contributions by 81 percent. The plan would add $1.35 in revenue, which Myrick said will help keep the property tax rate down.
While nobody likes throwing money away, the mayor proposed a 75 cent increase in the price of trash tags. Myrick said rising waste management costs would need to covered by an increase in property taxes if not by an increase in tag prices. By increasing tag prices, he said he hopes to incentivize residents to create less waste.
As usual, the mayor called out Cornell University’s small contribution to city revenue. Cornell owns $2.1 billion in tax-exempt property, an amount equal to all other taxable property in the City of Ithaca, he said.
“We would be better off if any other Ivy League School were in Ithaca. If we could trade out Harvard for Cornell, our streets would be better paved,” Myrick said.
The bottom line
The city’s financial health looks good, according to the mayor. With the proposed budget, general fund revenue would grow faster than expenditures, meaning the city would not need to dip as far into its savings in 2019 as in the past year.
Of course, not all parties will be happy with the mayor’s recommendations. City departments have until Friday to submit their budget requests to the mayor’s office. Changes to the budget will then be hashed out at a series of budget meetings, all of which are open to the public.
Public hearings are scheduled for Oct. 11, Oct. 24 and Nov. 7, all at 6 p.m. in City Hall. Common Council will vote on the budget on Nov. 7.
A full meeting schedule is available on the city’s budget website and includes a list of when each city department or program will be discussed.
Clarification: This story was updated on Oct. 4 to clarify how the proposed tax rate would impact homeowners and to correctly attribute a statement to the mayor’s budget narrative, available on the city’s budget website.