Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Municipal Reality Check

Orange County is still a great place to live, work and play. The County government is fiscally responsible. We know this because Orange County has the highest bond rating in New York State after Westchester County. We have lower tax rates which draws many homebuyers to our county. Orange County has considerable reserves to set forth major development projects such as Orange County Community College in Newburgh. Orange County has a huge parks and recreation system to benefit of all its residents. And this County is the fastest growing County in the state.

Yet, we live in a curious time. Government is becoming the cure while Corporate America is withering on the vine. Major American institutions like Citibank, GM, Ford, and IBM are in disrepair with some of their stock selling for pennies. Could local government fall too? It is actually scary times.

If you would like to expand that fear, attend a Newburgh City Council meeting.
You will certainly question whether government is the cure to our problems. But since we have government and it is the last barrier to anarchy, let’s work with it. Or better yet, let’s have them work with us because right now, in the City of Newburgh, like many areas, they are hitting our empty pockets with a vengeance.

Once upon a time, the City of Newburgh had the lowest taxes in Orange County. Add to that, an inexpensive housing stock and you have a land of milk and honey where investment and homeownership flourish. And we know, during the real estate boom, Newburgh was a hot item. Then came a wicked villain named ‘Revaluation.” He was enough to darken the sky that once shined brightly over the city. But he was followed by a bigger and uglier ogre called “The Crash.” By the time they finished (actually they are not finished) taxes were sky high and housing values plummeted.

Now this story is no fairy tale. And it is possible we could all live happily ever after. But there would have to be some serious reversals of behaviors to have Newburgh flourish again.

The behavior that must be reversed is ever-expanding government expenditure. We see it in the Federal, State, and local governments. And we see it on Boards of Education. I have never seen any of these institutions say; well let’s spend less this year. The direct result of limiting government expenditure is less taxes. So CUT TAXES!! What is wrong with reducing the tax burden on local residents? Especially now.

When I served the county as Executive Director of the Human Right Commission, all department heads were mandated to submit a budget that was 5% less than the budget they submitted the year before. The result of that practice is the good bond rating and financial security Orange County enjoys. The City of Newburgh and the Newburgh school district should consider a similar practice. Their budgets, like most municipalities, have expanded exponentially.

Municipal and school budgets have a heart beat. There are hundreds of families affected by the passage of these budget. Yet, Municipal workers, teachers, hospital workers and other public servants may have to come to reckoning soon. Even the stimulus bill that we are crying for will only get us over this year’s deficit. There may be a need to reduce salary increases instead of cutting out jobs.

Case in point: Last week, The New York Times threatened to close the Boston Globe if the newspaper unions did not allow for $20 million in concessions. Wouldn’t it be better to take a little less than lose it all?

The City of Newburgh can simply increase the tax levy and act as if nobody is affected. And when you can’t pay the taxes, the City will take your house in rem faster than any bank. The result: The City of Newburgh is the largest property owner in the city.

There is turmoil in City Hall. Yet, the Acting City Manager seems to have the demeanor, acumen and knowledge to advise the Council and act on what the city needs.

Some questions for thought: Who will prepare the 2010 Budget for the City of Newburgh? Are they prepared to make serious cuts? Will they use the over-inflated assessment values provided by the revaluation? (I know the answer to this one already). Are the city residents and taxpayers prepared to make clear to the current council that changes in government expenditure is key to our city’s recovery?

If so, that would be change I could believe in.

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