City Deficit Looms Large
By Tom McDermott
At last month’s City Council meeting, City Manager Greg Usry and Comptroller Joe Fazzino painted a bleak picture of the City’s finances in a fiscal year dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. After accounting for revenue shortfalls and possible deferral of hiring and capital improvements, they projected a deficit of $2.929 million.
A month later, at the August 17 Council meeting, their latest estimate was lower; they pegged the deficit at $2.172 million, not rosy by a longshot, but better.
How did that happen? While parking and traffic related fines, and hotel occupancy taxes were down, there was a $300,000 projected increase in Sales & Use Tax. On the expense side, the City now expects a $378,000 decrease in Employee Health Care and Worker’s Compensation expense. The overall result is that the estimated deficit shrunk by $757,000.
That leaves the City’s deficit projection at $2.172 million. Like some of Rye’s businesses – retailers, service providers, food shops, and restaurants — Rye is facing severe challenges in 2020, and the 2021 budget season looms in which even a flat budget might be a luxury.
The second phase of planned street resurfacing may well be deferred to offset $500,000 in Fire Department overtime that wasn’t budgeted. In a phone interview, the City Manager explained that with the three major structure fires in a matter of months, an unexpected retirement, and not enough trained volunteers (105 hours are required) to assist the paid firefighters, the City had no choice but to pay overtime.
“A paid professional is only allowed to work a certain number of hours at regular pay per year. We are looking at whether hiring two additional firefighters — with starting salaries of $105,000 to $110,000 — is more cost-effective than backfilling with overtime.”
We asked Mayor Cohn what else the City might do to get the budget back in balance. “We’ve been putting money aside in the Capital Reserve, about $3 million, and it may increase. I’d hate to deplete that, but we have an enormous number of to-dos.”
What about the possibility of raising taxes? “We’ve tried hard not to raise taxes, but you’re identifying a very real problem.”
Councilmember Julie Souza commented, “It’s the challenge that’s hanging over us. We will have to make trade-offs. There has been some discussion about using the Fund for operating expenses. We’ll need to focus on the problem in the next few meetings.”
The biggest capital project deferral would be the $800,000 second tranche of street resurfacing; the first cost $1 million. Cohn posed the problem: “Do we reduce it or take resurfacing as an operating expense as some residents see it? I want to find a way to resurface. It might be prudent to split it up. Using the Capital Reserve is a hard choice.”