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Committee To Improve City Financial Status And City/County Relations Report

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ElmiraTelegram    124

A committee to look at ways to improve the relationship between the City of Elmira and Chemung County, as well as how to improve the city's financial status will be releasing it's findings at a presentation to be held next week. 

Information about the committee, the meeting, and a copy of the report can be found HERE

Open discussion about the committee's findings. 

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KarenK    79
7 hours ago, ElmiraTelegram said:

A committee to look at ways to improve the relationship between the City of Elmira and Chemung County, as well as how to improve the city's financial status will be releasing it's findings at a presentation to be held next week. 

Information about the committee, the meeting, and a copy of the report can be found HERE

Open discussion about the committee's findings. 

71 pages.  A little light reading before bedtime?  LOL

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KReed    442
Posted (edited)

 

Quote

 

71 pages.  A little light reading before bedtime?  LOL

 


 

 

Many of the meeting agenda/minutes go 200+ pages (I have seen 1700 and 2300 pages for Legislature meetings with multi-page attachments, routing slips, etc).

So pretty much any issue that is out there for "public record" is a full time job to keep abreast of. 

It's all probably too complicated for lowly taxpayers to comprehend anyway. So it's best let the qualified experts just do what they know is best for us - no need for us to worry about knowing the details.

Edited by KReed
  • Haha 1

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Chris    951

I skimmed through it, but haven't really sunk my teeth into it yet. 

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Adam    19

I am sure on one of the livestreamed meetings i saw/heard someone mention that the County has been covering Health insurance for City employees. Though i have yet to find confirmation of this and exactly how many are covered, i believe this is a serious misuse of County tax monies, many of us do not live in the City and would see our monies spent elsewhere

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We spent six months writing the report. At first we discussed hiring a consultant to help put it together, but decided against paying $10,000 or so and did it ourselves.

The report is admittedly a little dense and wonky, but in fairness this is what real government is about. I can’t say the act of brainstorming and writing was fun at all times, instead it was what we were elected to do - hard work. (This does not include the history of sales tax section. I had free reign to spend a lot of time digging through the Star Gazette archives from the 60’s and 70’s. Such an interesting experience!)

We edited the report at least ten times with an aim of making it as digestible as possible. Please keep in mind that some of the topics are just tough to set forth.

Please come to the presentation on August 6th at 7:00 at Mandeville Hall. You will have a chance to have any questions you have answered by the Committee. 

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Posted (edited)

Adam - the County does not provide health insurance for the city. Instead the county essentially acts as an insurance company at and allows employees from the City and Schuyler County to by polices from it.

The problem is with overages, ie money that exceeds the policy limits. The city has cost the county around 1.5 million over the past three years.

Moss placed the city on notice that it needs to have its employees move to another plan in order to stay on. We address this issue near the start of the report.

Edited by Christina Sonsire
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Chris    951
2 hours ago, Christina Sonsire said:

We spent six months writing the report. 

Six months and all ya got was 71 pages?!? Slackers. ;)

 

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Johnny Go    167

I appreciate the considerable amount of work which obviously went into this report.  I thank the committee for doing this.  I would like to see action taken based on this report.

I'm not sure what the intent of this report is supposed to be.  If it is meant to present recommendations for improvement of city finances and generate support for those recommendations it is not structured in that manner.  The recommendations should be clearly stated and highlighted upfront, with the background and rationale for those recommendations as a followup.  This report fails in both of those aspects.  The recommendations are not clearly stated, and they tend to be buried at the not only at end of the section  describing the situation, but also at the end of the section containing the recommendation.  Each section is like a poorly written murder mystery, the story is told, then the sometimes twisted punchline is delivered at the end.

One needs to look no further than the very first recommendation concerning the Mark Twain Golf Course.  The story starts on Page 10, the recommendation starts in the middle of page 12 and end at the end of page 13.  I expected the recommendation to be in the first line of the recommendation section, and, I guess, there is a recommendation there.  "...it would be prudent to explore alternatives...".  Say what? I thought that was the purpose of the committee and this recommendation intro would  highlight the best alternative(s).  Turns out the real recommendation is buried in the middle of the last paragraph in the recommendation section, the course should be leased to the county.  At least that's what I think it says.

Again, I'm not slamming the work or the motivations of the committee, I'm trying to point out ways to make sure their work does not go to waste.

Since the report is an image, it is not possible to cut and paste from the report to help highlight the recommendations.  And since the recommendations are not clearly stated in some circumstances I will paraphrase what I think I read those recommendations to be in the next post.

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Johnny Go    167

Here is my summary of the recommendations.  I tried to keep my opinions and biases to a minimum, not sure how successful I was (it was hard).  Feel free to discuss and point out any misinterpretations, wrong or missing conclusion I have.

Summary of Recommendations from the Committee To Improve City Finances:

1 – Mark Twain Golf Course: City should lease the golf course to the county.

2 – Empira Zone/Sales Tax: Sales Tax Allocation changes in a two step process:

                Step 1 – Do not reduce county share of sales tax, but pay the city earlier for foreclosure revenue and forgive some of the debt the city owes the county.

                Step 2 – This is complicated with many scenarios, but I think the basic proposal is that the county sales tax be increased to either 8% or 8.5%, and the city needs to do a better job managing its expenses.

3 – Bridges: Transfer ownership of bridges in good condition from the city to the county.

4 – Short and Long Term Debt: City should reduce short term borrowing and pay down long term debt.

5 – Explore Alternatives for Providing Sanitation Services: This one is not clear, there are several actions discussed:

-          Consider going to a per bag fee system using stickers the city would sell (not sure if this is a recommendation or an option)

-          Privatize garbage pickup

-          Audit sanitation account to identify recent large fee increases.

6 – Elmira College and City of Elmira: This section, not surprisingly, is not addressed with specific recommendations:

-          City and college should meet monthly to discuss how to share service costs to make sure both the city and the college can mutually achieve their financial goals.

-          Implement a tuition based service fee.

7 – Room Tax:  Increase room tax (hotels, etc.) from 4% to 5%

-          Negotiate with AriBnB to get them to collect the tax

-          Include Woodlawn Cemetery for the list of distribution.

8 – Finance: City and county to meet and discuss how to share financial services.

9 – Public Safety: All public safety groups (law enforcement) meet and come up with a plan to combine services such as police records bureaus and investigative divisions, and do something for real this time.

10 – Financial Restructuring Board: Share this report with the Financial Restructuring Board in hopes of getting some free money to assist the city.

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I appreciate your feedback. As I stated, we did the best we could.

To your point regarding the recommendations, please note the very first section sets forth each recommendation in a bullet-pointed list. 

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Johnny Go    167
Posted (edited)

Thank you, I did miss that section.  In my defense I was looking for a section titled "recommendations", and this was buried in the introduction section and was not called out in the table of contents.  Think clarity and succinctness.

Not all of these recommendations match what I found reading the report, such as Sales Tax Redistribution Formula.  The wording in the introduction has me a bit concerned.  I'll have to go back and try to decipher the details in that section in the report.

Edited by Johnny Go

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I understand. 

We placed them right up front in the introduction section to set them forth as you suggest in your post above.

The sales tax section is tricky. We are not merely proposing an increase, but rather a new way of thinking through distribution to provide more money to the city based on need - specifically the amount of tax exempt property - while not negatively impacting the towns and villages. We opted for a general statement in the bullet points with a thorough analysis in the report itself.

I anticipate their will be push back about raising sales tax - and I absolutely get it. We will spend a fair amount of time on this topic at the presentation in the hopes of generating some substantive discussion about the pros and cons of an increase.

Again, please keep in mind that none of the committee members are professional fiscal analysts, although the past experience of John Burin and Dave Vandemark was extremely helpful. I am sure their are a lot of things we could have done better, but hopefully the end game - improvements to the city and community and large - will be a success.

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Chris    951
3 minutes ago, Christina Sonsire said:

I anticipate their will be push back about raising sales tax - and I absolutely get it. We will spend a fair amount of time on this topic at the presentation in the hopes of generating some substantive discussion about the pros and cons of an increase.

If we're looking at a tax increase, and increase in sales tax sure seems more evenly distributed among the population than a property tax increase. 

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Johnny Go    167
Posted (edited)

I think one of the things that could have been done right up front was to include a private citizen with private sector managerial experience.  I'm sure you would have found people willing to volunteer. 

Edited by Johnny Go

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Johnny Go    167
1 minute ago, Chris said:

If we're looking at a tax increase, and increase in sales tax sure seems more evenly distributed among the population than a property tax increase. 

The report did a good job of discussing that issue.  Both types of taxes are regressive, impacting low income people the most.  But sales tax is the lesser of the two evils, partly because it so gets distributed to people outside the local population.

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Not a bad idea. I did not have a say in who was chosen. Instead Moss’ recommendation was that John Burin and Jim Waters be appointed and they each select four people to sit on the committee.

 Vandermark is the former city chamberlain and Burin is the former city manager. Both were in those positions when the city turned itself around financially a little over a decade ago before its recent decline. I think the rationale was that we would call upon their experience. I can say firsthand that it helped tremendously. 

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Chris    951

Screen Shot 2019-07-31 at 2.54.21 PM.png

Does the golf course generate enough revenue that it's even worth for the county or city to own in the first place? Or would it better to find a willing buyer to get out from under it entirely?

Privatization of garbage collection is definitely worth looking into. 

As for Elmira College, I get the benefit to the community. However they do utilize public services such as police and fire. They should be paying something towards it, even if it's a small fee. 

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The golf course is a tough issue.

Our first inclination was to recommend an outright sale. However, after meeting with Senator O’Mara we came to appreciate that a sale will not help the city’s fiscal situation at this time as (a) any revenue from the sale has to be put back into city parks under NY law because the golf course is considered a “park”; and (b) NY law also would require the city to set aside equal acreage elsewhere inside its borders to designate as a park, meaning even more city property becomes tax exempt.

Should government run golf courses? Probably not, but in this case the county could ease the city’s financial burden in the short term while earning money by improving course and extending food and drink offerings. 

I recently heard a suggestion that the city should lease the course directly to a private entity or person. I think it’s a interesting idea, although our experience with the Arena show these types of public-private entanglements are not always a great fit.

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KReed    442

Johnny Go is right. Like other committees, the county has a poor record of including local citizens and business people in developing their grand plans.

I would particularly think hotel/property owners should be consulted when considering room taxes. Did anyone on the committee obtain room vacancy trends and comparisons to nearby counties? Unless the rooms are being sold at full capacity now and we are already sending guests away to neighboring counties, a rate increase will likely result in fewer guests (and less revenue in the form of room taxes). While cutting rates a noticeable amount results in more consumer traffic.

This applies to sales tax as well, lowering cost to consumers tends to increase overall revenue. Economically speaking, one might think this was “settled science” when Henry Ford demonstrated it over a century ago. Walmart and Amazon making billions by offering products at significantly lower costs than competitors prove it still holds true today: lower cost per transaction =  higher number of transactions.

While we’re at it…..any fees collected from the public can be included in this basic economic model. Why do we think sales tax collected in the city keeps falling and the restructuring was even introduced? Rather than being nickeled and dimed by parking meters (and facing fines if you overstay your welcome), people just avoid shopping in the city because they find free parking for unlimited time frames at malls and shopping centers more appealing.  The result is $0.00 in sales tax collected and parking fees for every single consumer that shops elsewhere. 

And, slashing fees at Mark Twain Golf Course would likely result in more visitors. 

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We did ample due diligence to arrive at these recommendations, including studies of room and sales tax.

With respect to the public, we released the report on the same day we announced it will be presented at a public forum within a week and are doing everything we can to solicit public input. I am not sure what level of collaboration is expected, but in my view we are trying our best to be inclusive. Inviting the entire community to participate in writing the report might sound good in theory, but it would take years to get anything done that way.

Again, these are just recommendations, i.e. a way to get the conversation started. 

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KReed    442

I did not see any notes or references to occupancy rates for Chemung or other counties. Only a comparison of various room tax rates.

Room prices are directly related to occupancy rates. If you browse similar hotel brands with comparable amenities and see a $20-50 lower rate at one location, it is an indication that the cheaper location has far more empty rooms. They actively lower prices to keep revenue. They operate on a pure supply and demand model (with a finite supply of rooms), which is why they can astronomically raise rates when events/location create a high demand (anything in a 50 mile radius of WGI this week).

The (year round) trends in that occupancy rate (and how room taxes may impact it) is the comparison I was suggesting that local hospitality businesses should weigh in on.   

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Our sense is that people who choose to stay in Chemung County do so for a purpose. They are not choosing to stay here for cost, but rather for convenience.

The Chemung County Chamber of Commerce has been in support of increase in room tax for years based on the rationale I set forth above, and the hotel owners also generally support it as long as we couple the measure with an imposition of a tax on Airbnbs.

To me it’s a no brainer. For the most part Chemung County residents don’t pay the tax, and - at least in my opinion - it’s unreasonable to think a small increase is going to encourage someone to stay in Corning or Watkins Glen, etc.

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Adam    19
13 hours ago, Christina Sonsire said:

Adam - the County does not provide health insurance for the city. Instead the county essentially acts as an insurance company at and allows employees from the City and Schuyler County to by polices from it.

The problem is with overages, ie money that exceeds the policy limits. The city has cost the county around 1.5 million over the past three years.

Moss placed the city on notice that it needs to have its employees move to another plan in order to stay on. We address this issue near the start of the report.

thanks for that info, i could not load the file to read the report (our new internet is still on its way!)

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