ITHACA, N.Y.—For three years in a row, the City of Ithaca has filed financial information late with the Office of the New York State Comptroller (OSC). As a result, they haven’t received a score from New York’s Fiscal Stress Monitoring System. The City has only filed on time twice since the OSC first started calculating financial stress scores for municipalities for the year 2012, making it one of the most consistent offenders in the state for tardiness on this particular filing.
But this isn’t a matter of negligence. Rather, the City’s Finance Department has seen its volume of work increase over the years while its staffing has fluctuated. It’s a problem which the City is attempting to remedy in the 2022 budget by adding a position to the department.
Steve Thayer, the City of Ithaca’s Controller, said that ideally the City of Ithaca would be filing for this score on time, but given the short staff the department has contended with over the years, “trying to provide the community with the proper services they deserve and can afford is more important for us.”
And, he confirmed, that the score and the analysis the OSC provides doesn’t tell the City anything it doesn’t already know.
The penalties for not filing on time are weak to none. Thayer said that the City of Ithaca does eventually submit the financial information the OSC requires of them—usually in August or September after the extended deadline of June 1—but the state doesn’t retroactively calculate fiscal stress scores. Thayer said that if the OSC did, “I think what it would show is that our scores are low.”
Since the Fiscal Stress Monitoring System started in 2012, the city has filed on time for 2016 and 2017. Respectively, the City of Ithaca received a score of 12.9 and 9.6 percent, far below the 45 percent threshold that would mark it as “susceptible to stress.”
The City is adding another Deputy Controller position to the Finance Department in the budget, and Thayer said that “hopefully, this will allow us to catch up next year and we’ll be timely filed.” The City will have a public hearing regarding the proposed 2022 budget on Nov. 3.
Tom DiNapoli, the New York State’s Comptroller, was in Ithaca on Oct. 25 for a roundtable discussion about the effects of the pandemic from a local government perspective. He told the Ithaca Voice that the fiscal stress score is largely to give taxpayers a clear view into the financial standing of their local government.
“It’s accountability for your taxpayers,” said DiNapoli. “If you’re one of the localities that doesn’t file from year to year, it just raises more questions. Right? With us, with the public, with the press. It’s in everyone’s interest to comply.”
DiNapoli added that the number of municipalities that have missed the filing deadlines saw a small jump in 2019 and 2020 as a result of COVID—filings are done to receive a score for the previous year, so 2019 is filed in 2020. Of the 1590 municipalities that were supposed to file with the OSC in those years, respectively, 174 and 173 missed the deadline. The previous high was 139 in for 2018’s filing.
While people lost their jobs in scores during COVID, it also created an overwhelming amount of work for many of the people that remained in their positions. In an effort to avoid the crushing weight of a $13M budget deficit, the City of Ithaca furloughed 87 employees in April 2020. Thayer said he was working seven days a week during COVID, “just trying to figure out how to keep the City operating.”
While operations are back on track in the City, the Finance Department and others—like the Clerk’s Office and the Planning Department—will have to contend with choppy waters as they regain their footing in 2022. There are two positions that are currently vacant, and two retirements coming up in 2022, and two more in 2023. Civil service requirements can add speed bumps to getting new employees in the door, tacking on months to the hiring process.
The Finance Department at one time had 5 more positions to assist in its day to day workload, but has moved to be leaner in the name of reducing costs for taxpayers.
“Over time we’ve always tried to keep the administration costs for the taxpayers as low as possible,” said Thayer. “And so those things sometimes have some impacts.”
Keeping the right number of staff to manage the workload and keep costs low seems to be the balancing act City departments are, essentially, committed to.
The Department is managing a growing workload, including reporting related to the increasing number of developments in Ithaca; an increasing volume of various state and federal filings; and now special reporting associated with the $17M of American Rescue Plan funds the city received.
The Finance Department has also been working piece-meal through the process of upgrading its financial systems since 2016, with the hope of completing the project by the early part of 2023. Once complete, the upgrades will improve efficiencies in the department’s workflow but, until then, it’s a process that is being juggled with the department’s other work and another project that has been complicated by the impacts of the pandemic.
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said that in his conversations with the New York Conference of Mayors, that staffing is “the number one problem” he’s seen each municipality has in common. Myrick said that he’d bet that the City’s staffing looks better than the average private sector company, but that there’s an overlap in many of the same compounding problems.
“A lot of folks are at the end of their careers, a lot of folks are ready to retire, and it’s harder and harder to hire,” said Myrick.
“I think there’s some answers. Some of it’s about compensation; you might have seen in the budget that we put in money for a compensation study that lays the groundwork for increasing everybody’s pay. Some of it is about benefits,” said Myrick, but he added, “I think some it’s going to be about recruiting…I think increasingly we’re going to have to do national searches.”
For the near term, getting ahead on filings like the state’s Fiscal Stress Monitoring System seems achievable to Thayer.
“We’ve been short staffed — what can I say? We’re trying to correct it, and we’re trying to keep our costs as low as possible,” said Thayer. “If you’re a taxpayer in the city, you know that taxes are very high, and we’re trying to keep those as low as possible.”