City Council used their final 2019 budget session to make dramatic, last-second cuts to the city’s anti-poverty effort, the Economic Opportunity Task Force, and the Office of Neighborhood Initiatives, which is overseeing the creation of the Task Force. By waiting to make these changes during the final meeting, Council avoided any public discussion of the budget cuts, and severely limited the city’s ability to support low-income residents and Foundry contamination victims and to engage with the community at large.
The councilors who voted for the budget cuts said that their goal was to lower taxes.
But according to a Finger Lakes Times article, the average homeowner would see just a few dollars a month in savings:
“Assistant City Manager/Comptroller Adam Blowers said the tax cut will result in $54 in annual savings for a property assessed at $100,000.”
How Does The Budget Process Work?
Each year, city staff researches and writes a proposed budget for the following year, then publicly releases the proposed budget in August.
Then, at the first City Council meeting in October, a public hearing is held where residents and organizations can publicly comment on the proposed budget.
For the rest of October, City Council holds either two or three public work sessions to discuss and eventually adopt the budget. The public is allowed to attend those work sessions, but no public comment is allowed.
This current budget process provides city council the opportunity to make surprise, last-minute, final changes to the budget each year, without any chance of public feedback.
This year, the Proposed 2019 Budget was released publicly on August 22, the public hearing was held on October 3, and work sessions were held on October 10, 17 and 24, with the budget being adopted at the final work session.
Anti-Poverty Effort Slashed, Comprehensive Plan Ignored
The October 24th City Council Meeting Work Session began with Mayor Ron Alcock’s proposal to make changes to nine areas of the budget which would result in $124,700 in total cuts. Among those cuts was a reduction of $18,000 from funding for the Economic Opportunity Task Force (EOTF), the city’s anti-poverty effort.
Alcock’s proposal required that Council first approve his request to vote for all nine budget changes as one “block” before actually voting on the changes.
Council voted 6-3 in favor of voting on the entire “block,” with At-Large Councilor Mark Gramling, Ward 3’s Steve Valentino, and Ward 5’s Jason Hagerman opposing.
Council then voted 8-1 in favor of Alcock’s proposal to cut EOTF funding from $30,000 to just $12,000, with Valentino the only councilor opposed.
For more than a year, during 2015 and 2016, the City of Geneva spent nearly $100,000 on consultants, public input sessions, surveys, and city-wide dialogues to clarify the priorities, values and goals of the City of Geneva for the next 15 years. Hundreds of residents participated, and the result was the city’s Comprehensive Plan, approved in September 2016.
Perhaps the single most significant piece of the Plan is the section entitled “Initiatives.” While the Plan is designed as a fifteen-year blueprint for decision-making in the city and not a list of “promises,” the “Initiatives” section explicitly details the most far-reaching and specific goals of the entire Plan, and is the closest thing to a “to-do” list in the entire document. The EOTF is one of those five “Initiatives” because the people of Geneva believe it should be.
According to the Comprehensive Plan, the EOTF’s recommended funding is between $250,000 and $1,000,000 over 15 years, or between $16,667 and $66,667 per year.
Since approving the Comprehensive Plan in 2016, City Council has only approved EOTF funding of $12,000 per year in 2017, 2018, and now, 2019.
After three consecutive years of underfunding the EOTF, it’s become clear that this city council does not care about the wishes of the people and the Comprehensive Plan, and that they have little interest in addressing the shameful and ever-increasing poverty rate in our city.
Neighborhood Initiatives Takes Massive Cut
Ward 6 Councilor John Greco made a motion to completely eliminate all funding for the position of director of the Office of Neighborhood Initiatives, the job that Sage Gerling performed since 2012. Among a long list of responsibilities related to creating cooperation between city government and residents, the ONI Director is also tasked with overseeing the city’s programs to support residents of the Foundry contamination zone, and for researching and implementing the EOTF.
Former Republican (and current Democrat) Ken Camera of Ward 4 agreed with Greco, but the rest of Council rejected Camera and Greco’s attempt to completely dismantle the ONI by a 7-2 vote.
Councilor-At-Large Gordon “Gordy Leaddington” Eddington then asked Council to remove all funding for the ONI director job, but suggested they remove the funding for 2019 only, while keeping the ONI director job as an official position on the city’s organizational chart, so that the job wasn’t technically eliminated, just defunded.
Camera, Eddington, Ward 2 Councilor Paul D’Amico and Mayor Ron Alcock supported the motion, but it was rejected by a 5-4 vote.
Next, Greco made a motion to reduce the ONI Director from full-time to a part-time position.
Camera, Eddington, D’Amico, Alcock and Greco voted in favor and the cut was approved by a 5-4 vote, delivering a serious blow to the city’s anti-poverty, Foundry support and community engagement efforts.
Then, Ward 5 Councilor Jason Hagerman motioned to limit the salary of the new part-time ONI Director position to $43,000.
Camera, Hagerman, Greco, Eddington, Gramling and Alcock voted in favor, and the motion passed 6-3.
Finally, City Council voted 7-2 to approve the final budget, including the cuts to EOTF and ONI, with Hagerman and Valentino opposing.
By the time Council had finished gutting the Economic Opportunity Task Force and the Office of Neighborhood Initiatives, only one Councilor voted against every cut, every step of the way: Steve Valentino.
And only one Councilor had voted in favor of every cut, every step of the way: former Republican and current Democrat Ken Camera of Ward 4.
Camera, who routinely stepped up to vocally and enthusiastically support former City Manager Matt Horn in recent years, wrote a guest column in the Finger Lakes Times a few weeks before the final budget meeting, arguing that “tough choices” needed to be made to reduce taxes in the city. In addition, Camera stated that “Gerling and her team should strive to make another 4 percent cut in the 2020 budget” just a few weeks before dramatically cutting the budget of “Gerling’s team.”
However, making drastic, last-minute cuts to the budgets for the city’s most critical community engagement staff is not a “tough choice.”
Doing an honest cost analysis of every city department, including the police and fire departments, and seeing where those budgets can be slashed without compromising service, is a “tough choice.”
Actively demanding that the City of Geneva stop offering tax breaks to every wealthy corporation and developer in the city is a “tough choice.”
Slashing the budget of the city department whose goal is to improve communication and cooperation between residents and city hall is not a “tough choice.” It takes no political “guts” to cut the ONI under the premise of “lowering taxes,” because it gives certain councilors a last-minute opportunity to make Sage Gerling’s job harder, in a way that the public wouldn’t have any opportunity to object. Still, it’s not an unexpected move coming from a councilor who will happily flip his party affiliation to get elected.
Why Cut the ONI Now And Not Sooner?
From 2012 to 2018, former City Manager Matt Horn received extensive support from Gerling and the ONI with the city’s community engagement responsibilities. Gerling’s constant and steady presence at so many community events build her a reputation that would propel her into the City Manager position. In addition, many of Horn’s notable successes likely wouldn’t have occurred without the help of Gerling and the ONI.
For seven years, this and the previous city council voted to fully fund the position, while Matt Horn was City Manager, providing Horn with an invaluable resource to perform the duties and responsibilities of the job.
Now, the new City Manager, Sage Gerling, is expected to perform her duties and responsibilities without the assistance of a full-time ONI director.
In response to the cuts, Valentino said, “You’re stripping the ability of this staff and asking them to do more with less. Eventually they’re going to say, ‘I don’t need this,’ and move on.” Hagerman called the cuts “extremely unfair to the city manager.”
Hagerman had even stronger words in a statement sent to the Finger Lakes Times, saying he was ““extremely unhappy with this budget and will make a statement at the November meeting. I feel we’ve handcuffed the city manager. And I feel it’s sexism at work — this level of scrutiny was never applied to Matt’s budgets.”
However, Hagerman made no statement at the November Council meeting.
Another City Manager Support Staff Position Nearly Eliminated
Not satisfied with slashing the ONI and EOTF, Mayor Alcock made a motion to eliminate the communications director position, an outside contractor job costing $66,000 annually.
According to a Finger Lakes Times article, the communications/marketing director job, currently held by Rhonda Destino, exists to heighten “two-way communication between the community and the city,” to “ensure transparent communication with community members, and to “inform management staff of what is going in the city from neighbors, residents, partners, businesses, etc.”
Council eventually voted 5-4 to keep the position funded, with Alcock, D’Amico, Eddington and Greco voting to severely limit the city’s ability to communicate and engage with taxpayers, and to significantly damage the ability of the city manager to do her job.
Did The Mayor Violate The City Code Of Ethics?
During the final budget work session on October 24th, Mayor Ron Alcock made a statement that indicates he has violated Tenet 5 of the City of Geneva Code of Ethics on multiple occasions, over several years.
TENET 5: CONDUCT OF PUBLIC MEETINGS
Public Officials shall prepare themselves for public issues, listen courteously and attentively to all public discussions before the body, and focus on the business at hand. They shall refrain from interrupting speakers, making personal comments not germane to the business of the body, or otherwise interfering with the orderly conduct of meetings.
In the October 28th article, the Finger Lakes Times reported the following:
“Mayor Ron Alcock supported holding off on a hire for the director job “because I’m not sure what the ONI does,” he said.”
The director of the ONI has been a full-time, city-funded position since 2012.
Alcock voted on the budget and approved funding for the ONI director job for seven consecutive years – 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Apparently, he still voted to fund the ONI for seven consecutive years while he was unsure what the department actually did.
All residents should expect that the MAYOR OF THE CITY would “prepare” himself for each budget season by gaining a full understanding of exactly what each city department does before voting whether to fund those departments with millions of dollars in taxpayer money.
According to Alcock himself, he did not do this.
It’s up to the City of Geneva’s Ethics Committee to decide how to respond to the Mayor’s violation.