September 10, 2011

Town finances becoming rational, not derelict

The Ithaca Journal noticed "developer and Republican candidate for town supervisor" Bruno Schickel and has an article discussing his claims and the response from incumbent Democratic Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner.

It's been a few years since I watched the Dryden budget closely, but most of Schickel's points seem to me like an odd effort to blast Sumner for bringing some rationality to what had long been a very strange budget process. It sounds like he's picking numbers to make a situation that's actually pretty normal look grim - and ignoring, I suspect, a major way the Town did what he claims was a good thing.

When I first got into this in 2003 and 2004, I went to talk with former Supervisor Mark Varvayanis. To be blunt, town finances at that point were a complete mystery to me. Reading budgets and looking at expenditures didn't seem to tell a coherent story. Varvayanis made it clear that budgets were - as they had been for a long while - padded with extra money that rolled over from year to year. Comparing this year's budget to last year's spending was always going to be strange, and the numbers that mattered would be year-to-year budget or year-to-year expenditures.

Though I need to sit down with actual figures, it looks to me like Schickel is indulging in an apples to oranges comparison in this discussion.

The other piece that surprised me in talking with Mark was how much money the Town had. Some of it, to be sure, had been saved for the new Town Hall, but much of it was just massive rollover funds. The Town was on a long slow slide path spending those funds down, without (thankfully) binging during either Republican or Democratic-controlled Town Boards. As Sumner puts it:

The office of the state Comptroller recommends an unreserved fund balance of about 16 percent of expenditures. When Sumner took office in 2008 the fund, at $5.6 million, was at 200 percent of expenditures, which led her to request the board decrease the fund gradually, through a combination of one-time payments, transfers to reserve funds, and some advance payments, she said.

A few years back we had people calling for the Town to just hand that money back to taxpayers with some kind of tax holiday. The Town took a more cautious route and moved the money out of general fund rollovers and set up dedicated capital reserve funds, including highway and recreation funds.

The one recent financial decision the Town made that seemed genuinely risky to me was when they decided to go ahead with the farmland protection for the Lew-Lin farm despite New York State failing to come up with the actual money. We're apparently still waiting for the state to cough up the cash. Based on his comments at various Town meetings, Schickel seems to support this activity, so I'm not sure why he's complaining about it.

After the Journal wades through the financial back and forth, they give Schickel space to talk about the rest of his platform, including his support of gas drilling as a way for farmers to make money and his opposition to zoning in general.

On zoning, he claims that "With the exception of Varna, the rest of the town seems to want to be left alone. It seems like they're trying to push this down people's throats." I think Schickel needs to get out a little more often to listen to what people say about zoning. "Leave us alone" isn't necessarily something residents are saying to the Town so much as to prospects of unwanted change in their neighborhoods, and not just in Varna.

On the bright side, he seems to have borrowed much of my platform when I ran for Town Board in 2009 - looking to encourage alternative farming approaches, a farmer's market, and a trail network on the old railroad beds.

Posted by simon at September 10, 2011 7:18 AM in , , , ,
Note on photos


Mary Ann Sumner said:

Schickel is talking about ONE of more than TWENTY Dryden Town funds. When I was elected, the balance of that fund – the “A Fund” had grown to a whopping 200% of its annual expenditures.

In 2009 Ithaca Journal wrote about my plan to bring that fund into alignment with state guidelines. In a very open, public process we created several specific reserve funds to support future capital projects and prepaid some expenses, including the Farmland Protection grant, to bring the balance down to 100% of annual expenditures – still more than six times the state recommendation of 16%.

The A Fund is one of many operating funds – like checking accounts. All operating funds except the A Fund have steady or increasing balances. Reserve funds - like savings accounts – all have increasing balances and allow voters to petition for a permissive referendum prior to using the funds.

This a strong move toward responsible long-term financial planning and open government. Schickel and his writers have barely turned over one corner of one leaf of the town's finances and jumped to entirely inaccurate conclusions.