Members of the White Plains Common Council heard from the public during a hearing on the city’s 2017-18 budget proposal last week.
Citing the need to maintain budgeted contracts, while keeping property taxes down and staying within the state-mandated 2 percent tax cap, members of the city’s Budget and Management Committee explained that the use of technology in city departments across the board had produced savings, most notably through the automation of building permit applications and payroll, and that all departments should seek ways to use stream-lining technology specific to their operations.
Budget Director Mike Genito highlighted the stress put on the city’s finances by the 2 percent tax cap and that the expected revenues from sales tax had remained flat, causing White Plains to seek other “creative” revenue sources.
Mayor Tom Roach noted that with the decline of “brick and mortar” shopping due to an increase in online sales, one solution might be a tax on Internet purchases. “This is a nationwide problem,” Roach said, adding that he has lobbied in Washington, DC, for an Internet tax.
Thirty-four percent of the city’s revenues come from property taxes, 26% from unrestricted sales tax (part of sales tax revenue goes to a fund balance, approx. $5 million), and parking fees and fines generate about 15% of White Plains general fund revenues.
The city maintains a high Aa-1 bond rating from Moody’s.
When the floor was opened to public comment, Joe Carrier, president of the Professional White Plains Fire Fighters Association, reminded the Council that is was their obligation to provide a safe workplace for its employees. Through administrative and fiscal planning Ladder 34, is out of service most of the year, requiring other ladders to cover the south side of the city, Carrier said. “The Budget does not support Ladder 34.” Carrier explained that the functions of engines and trucks are different and that a working truck should be in close proximity of every neighborhood to ensure an appropriate response time in a fire emergency. He also addressed union members’ concerns that the population of White Plains continues to grow with higher, more complex residences being built but that the number of firefighters on staff had been reduced in recent years and that even with the addition of 12 new members this year, the number should at least be restored to former levels.
Carrier’s comments were echoed by several White Plains firefighters who approached the podium to state their concern for their own safety and the safety of residents served by Ladder 34, which they reiterated should be in service every day.
And, despite White Plains’ strict building codes to reduce fire hazards, firefighters emphasized that the use of petroleum-based and flammable products were on the rise in the average household.
Councilman Dennis Krolian noted that although Moody’s had given White Plains a high rating, there had been mention in Genito’s comments about an above average debt burden. “Can you remove the debt burden and at the same time stay within the 2 percent tax cap?” Krolian asked.
Genito responded that the property tax was one of the only places to go and that he would recommend overriding the tax cap if he felt it was absolutely necessary.
Councilwoman Beth Smayda, chair of the Budget and Management Committee, requested a report on how Moody’s had calculated White Plains’ debt.
There was debate about whether or not the city’s fund balance could be used to support more firefighters, but that suggestion was countered as being unwise because it would be a one-time fix that would need to be supported in future budgets.
Councilwoman Milagros Lecuona, who has challenged Mayor Roach by throwing her hat into the ring as a mayoral candidate, has been a strong supporter of adding more firefighters to the city’s staff. She asked, “Who made the decision about Ladder 34?”
“The budget is only discussed in April,” Lecuona told the White Plains Examiner during an interview Monday. “(As a Council) we are meeting with the departments less and less. In the past we had many more meetings. This year only two days of budget presentations were scheduled.”
Lecuona said that in Greenwich, Conn., there is a 200-member committee that puts together the budget. “The people should have more input in White Plains,” she added. “There is no communication so the Common Council can look for creative ways to save money or to move money around. We are given no options.”
Lecuona encourages a more open and ongoing budget process for the future and she challenges the current administration to address what the tax cap will mean to White Plains moving forward.