December 31, 2012


Year in Review —

Budget a significant challenge for new city administration


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin listens to a presentation in January by then-city Superintendent of Schools Larry Spring. Tobin had recently begun his first term as mayor.

Staff Reporter

The city of Cortland government saw a new mayor take office, joined a health care consortium to help balance the budget, came to a new sales tax agreement with Cortland County and had the Common Council amend its Code of Ethics to hold elected officials accountable for their positions in 2012.
The budget was a big issue for Mayor Brian Tobin, a Democrat, who took office in January. Tobin, a former alderman, took over a city that was having some financial trouble.
Even though Mack Cook, director of administration and finance, declared 2012 an “optimistic year” in terms of city finances back in January, the city had a difficult time drafting a working budget.
Part of the issue was the five-year agreement with the county on sales tax that reduces the city’s share of nearly $30 million in annual revenue.
Aldermen were not happy with the deal — which cuts the city’s share of revenue from 18.24 percent to 17.6 percent — but said they were left with few other options.
The city could have preempted the deal by instituting its own sales tax but that option would have resulted in $9.4 million less revenue for the city while leaving the county in an “untenable” financial position to pay for its $14 million emergency radio system, Cook said.
Currently, the county gets 52 percent of the sales tax revenue while the city gets 18.24 percent and 29.76 percent is distributed to towns and villages.
Under the approved deal, the county will get a 1.5 percent increase over the five-year plan, while the city’s share would go down 0.63 percent and the town and villages’ share would go down 0.87 percent.
Tobin has said the proposal means $154,000 less in 2013, $162,000 in 2014, and more than $200,000 less in 2015.
Even with declining revenue, Tobin and Cook were able to make a balanced budget for 2013, a $24.1 million budget with a 0.9 percent tax increase..
The adopted budget, approved unanimously, calls for a tax levy increase of 0.7 percent, down from the original figure of 1.8 percent in October when numbers were first discussed publicly.
The 2013 tax rate is set at $15.33 per $1,000 of assessed property value, up slightly from this year’s $15.20. The amount of money to be raised by property taxes for general fund expenditures is $8,027,234, Cook said.
The city’s decision in November to join the Tompkins County Health Care Consortium, and the $1 million savings expected to result, was a significant reason why the city was able to hold down the budget and tax rate despite increases in spending elsewhere in the 2013 budget.
With the move to the consortium, the cost of health insurance benefits for city employees will decrease from 2012’s rate. Had the city remained with Excellus as its provider, the cost per plan would have increased by more than 17 percent.
Cook said the city and all the unions with contracts up for renewal have agreed to memorandums of understanding that support the city joining the consortium.
The council also unanimously adopted the 2013 wastewater and water budgets.
General fund spending is $18,370,333, up from this year’s $18.2 million; the wastewater budget totals $3,896,459 and the water budget is $1,828,663, for a total budget of $24,095,455. The water fund this year is $1,816,940, while wastewater is $3,735,823.
The city’s bond rating from Standard & Poor’s, which upped Cortland’s bond rating from BBB-plus to A-minus. The upgrade allows the city to borrow money at a lower interest rate, which will save money for upcoming upgrades necessary to the city’s wastewater treatment facility in the next few years.
The plant management expects the facility can process the whey found in Byrne Dairy’s byproducts and turning it into electricity to power the plant. Byrne Dairy announced a month ago that it will build a large yogurt plant and agritourism center in Cortlandville. The city will treat the plant’s wastewater, while Cortlandville will sell Byrne Dairy the water used at the plant.
The council also amended the Rental Registry Permit Law in September after working with landlords for three years. In 2009, the council approved a program requiring landlords to register all rental properties in the city, allowing code enforcement officers to inspect each property once every three years.
A group of landlords who own student housing fought the law, saying it violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. After a lot of work, according to Tobin, the law was finalized in September.
Also this year, the council amended the Common Council Code of Ethics to address absenteeism. The amendment was prompted by repeated absences by former Alderman Stephanie Hayes (D-2nd Ward).
The draft states any member of the council who misses five consecutive meetings, or 10 in one year except due to illness, can have action taken against them. If that happens, the mayor would appoint a committee of four aldermen to review the absences and report their findings and recommendations to the council.
In September, real estate developer Jim Yaman donated $30,000 to have the blighted gas station at the corner of River Street and Clinton Avenue razed and the property gardened.
The building had been abandoned for more than 20 years.


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