ITHACA, N.Y. – Ithaca Common Council voted Wednesday, Nov. 7 to approve the City of Ithaca’s 2019 Budget. After weeks of public hearings, department input and discussion among council members, the final steps across the finish line came with little fanfare. Despite last-minute calls for increased police and Southside Community Center funding, Council did not approve any major changes during their final budget meeting.
Infrastructure is getting the biggest boost in 2019, with a new streets crew funded by property tax revenue; new water and sewer crew funded by water and sewer fees; and a new stormwater fee structure that will increase revenue from commercial properties.
Most homeowners should expect to see an increase in their city bills next year.
The 2019 property tax rate will be $11.60 per $1,000 in assessed property value, a 54 cent decrease compared to 2018. Property assessments, however, have continued to increase. In 2018, the median price for a home in the City of Ithaca was $210,000 according to the Tompkins County Department of Assessment. For 2019, the median is $230,000. A person whose home is valued at the median each year will see a $119 increase in their property tax bill.
Growth in assessed property value also means that while the tax rate is going down, the tax levy – or revenue brought in by property taxes – is going up. The levy will increase by about $600,000 in 2019, reaching about $23.6 million in total.
Water and sewer fees will be set at $7.88 and $5.80 per cubic foot respectively in 2019, a combined increase of 94 cents per cubic foot over 2018. For a home with minimum usage, the new rate means an increase of about $45 over the course of a year. The increase will offset the cost of a new water and sewer work crew, with hiring set to start on April 1.
Trash tag prices will go up from $3.75 to $4.50 to cover rising solid waste treatment costs.
Stormwater fees have been restructured to shift more of the financial burden of stormwater-related work to non-residential property owners. From 2015 to 2018, all property owners, including tax-exempt properties, paid $48 annually per “Equivalent Residential Unit,” a measure of impervious surface area. That system meant owners of 1-, 2- or 3- unit homes paid $48 per year, while larger property owners paid more according to lot size.
In 2019, stormwater fees for residential and non-residential properties will be set at different rates: $57 annually for residential lots, and $87 per ERU annually for non-residential lots.
Cynthia Brock, alderperson for the 1st Ward, was the only member of Common Council to vote against the 2019 budget. She said that while she approved of most of the budget, the increase in stormwater fees for commercial properties was too steep for her to support.
“It is going to be a huge hit to the majority of (non-residential) property owners in the city,” she said, noting that the 1st Ward includes commercial properties that would see large fee increases.
Brock raised concerns about the transparency of the new stormwater fee structure, as well as questions about how revenue from stormwater fees would be allocated going forward. She said she would have supported a slower, more digestible increase in stormwater fees with assurances that fee revenue would be spent on stormwater work.
“I appreciate the intent, I really do,” she said. “I’m probably the strongest advocate for stormwater work among the group of us … which is why I want to ensure that stormwater funds go to stormwater work not just under this council, but for a future council in five or 10 years.”
Other council members said they appreciated Brock’s concerns but stood by the new stormwater fee structure.
“I’m convinced we are helping to cover some of the costs of city staff and resources that we need to deal with the stormwater issue,” said Graham Kerslick, alderperson for the 4th Ward. He added, “I think it’s appropriate that (commercial) property owners are helping the city to try and address this important issue.”
Increased stormwater fee revenue in 2019 will free up property tax revenue that was previously appropriated for stormwater costs, allowing for increased spending elsewhere without increasing the property tax rate.
With boosts in revenue from property taxes, water fees, stormwater fees and sales tax compared to 2018, Common Council was able to increase appropriations to many city departments. The Department of Public Works will see the biggest gains, adding a streets crew and a water and sewer crew at a total cost of about $1 million.
Still, many requests for additional funding were not granted. Most controversial this year was the question of whether to fund two additional officers for the Ithaca Police Department. Despite two last-minute public comments in support of increased police funding, Council did not budge on the issue Wednesday.
Alderperson Seph Murtagh reopened discussion of increased funding for the Southside Community Center after an amendment proposing an increase did not reach a vote at the Oct. 30 budget meeting.
While colleagues expressed support for the center’s work and said they were open to reconsidering the request in the 2020 budget, they worried that it would be unfair to reconsider funding for Southside without reconsidering other requests that were not approved.
Alderperson Donna Fleming said if they reopened the Southside Community Center conversation, she would have to go back to the full list of requests and see what else to reconsider. “I think there are a lot of things that we wanted more that we voted against,” she said.
The only change to the budget approved Wednesday was an additional $5,000 for the Community Outreach Worker Program. The amendment brought the city’s total appropriation to the program to $45,000, matching the county’s contribution.
The amended version of the budget is not yet available but will be posted to the city’s budget website once all the details are finalized.