GovernmentThe White Plains Examiner

White Plains Budget Committee Zeroes in on COVID-19 Rebound

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By Andy Milone

A Budget and Management Advisory Committee member said Monday the gloomy days of the COVID-19 pandemic are in the rearview mirror while addressing next year’s proposed City of White Plains $212.3 million budget.

Committee member Tim Sheehan talked on May 5 during a public hearing about “resilience,” but also stressed wanting to remain “vigilant” going forward when the time comes in future years to decide how much of the city’s fund balance to use to cover the deficit and balance the annual budget.

Sheehan was the lone person to walk to the podium during a public hearing on the fiscal year 2024-25 budget, supported by a tax levy increase of 1.37%, at the White Plains Common Council’s meeting.

“The city can really and truly say we have recovered from the effects of the pandemic,” he said, now that the committee has concluded revenues are rebounding faster than expected.

“We had to do that with a little bit of imagination, with a charter change one year to get over the revenue projection problem, but the city sailed through that, and we’ve survived the loss of the Galleria.”

The committee consists of councilmembers and citizens. They provide in-depth analyses and recommendations on fiscal and programmatic operations, according to the city’s website.

The budget comes with a 5.4% increase in expenditures and is supported by a hike on residents of approximately $80 on a home with the median value. The council expects to vote this month on adoption before a May 30 deadline. The budget runs from July 1, 2024 until June 30, 2025.

Local officials will not ask to exceed the state cap on the property tax levy for a 13th year as Sheehan acknowledged those who worked to “hold the line on expenditures and to try to maintain services.”

No councilmembers commented publicly last week. Following the meeting, however, Councilman John Martin, who chairs the committee, agreed with Sheehan’s assessment that constituents shouldn’t see any reductions in personnel or services.

Spending is up 5.4% ($10.8 million) from this year’s budget, Martin confirmed while noting assessed values are down “a shade.”

Martin and Sheehan highlighted the addition of five first responders under personnel — three police officers and two firefighters – who are said to be necessary because of the city’s growth. The force includes a few hundred, the councilman estimated.

Budget Director James Arnett previously explained how increases in utilities, health insurance rates charged by the state for employees and retirees, pension related expenses and approved union contract salary hikes played a large role in the need to increase spending.

On the fund balance, Sheehan also said it’s “healthy and possibly enviable” at this time after having built it up to help the city survive during the height of the pandemic, for instance when sales tax revenues were lower. Officials need to keep an eye on it though, he added.

“No one is resting on their laurels,” Sheehan said. “Everyone remains vigilant to make sure that the hard work and effort and discipline the council has demonstrated the past few years is not going to fritter away.”

He noted the city appropriated $16 million in fund balance, up from approximately $14 million during the current year, but that it should look to pivot.

“Though money that is appropriated out of the fund balance doesn’t necessarily get spent, you have to assume the worst that it might,” Sheehan said.

“At some point in time, the council should be thinking about turning that around and going in the other direction,” he added.

It’s been done before, according to the committee member. But that takes some combination of finding revenues, cutting expenditures and raising taxes.

“No one wants to do that,” he said.

Mayor Thomas Roach noted during discussion how “historically conservative” the municipality has been, in part because that’s what the city’s charter requires. He also made a prediction about what to expect in the future.

“I think we will see some new revenue streams this year, which will be beneficial to us,” the mayor said without offering specifics.

A written statement from the committee, provided to The Examiner, also acknowledged needing to pay attention to long-term financial obligations like “uneven” annual pension liabilities, debt service payments, increased staffing and infrastructure maintenance costs.

“Failure to adequately address these obligations could strain the city’s financial resources in the future and limit its ability to fund essential services and programs,” the statement reads.

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