City councilors voiced overwhelming support for a 0% real property tax increase for the fifth consecutive year in the proposed $45.7 million city budget for 2022, that also calls for no increases in refuse, sewer and water rates.
Mayor Jacqueline M. Izzo presented the fifth budget of her administration to the Common Council during a special meeting Wednesday.
The financial plan for next year includes an increase in spending, from $44,944,838 this year to $45,707,235. That’s an increase of $762,397.
The tax rates will be the same as they are this year, under the mayor’s plan. The general rate would remain $13.31 per $1,000 in assessed value. The inside district’s combined rate would remain $20.20 per thousand. Property taxes are to generate 34.06% of the city’s income.
“Today our administration presents its sixth budget, again still in the midst of an on-going pandemic. Coronavirus has change the way we work, shop and play. The virus continues to have profound effects on the labor force, small businesses and the general operation of local government functions,” said Izzo when addressing the council Wednesday.
“However, since our first budget presentation for the 2017 fiscal year, our administration has enacted multi-year financial planning and we have remained steadfast in this approach...It is the administration’s job to present a budget that is fiscally sound, keeping in mind we must meet our contractual obligations, never compromise on the requirements of police and fire to keep our city safe, provide the equipment and supplies necessary to ensure city services are delivered in a timely, high quality fashion, and where possible to enhance the quality of life initiatives throughout our community,” the mayor added.
Kudos for multiyear planning
Like other municipalities, Rome continues to feel the effects of the pandemic, and First Ward Councilor John M. Sparace said the administration has done a good job with its multi-year financial planning, which has left the city “in pretty good standing” over the last few years. He commended the city’s workforce, who have worked under the challenges of constraints brought on by COVID.
“In the mayor’s address, a few statements that I was pleased to hear was that we will not be jeopardizing our public safety requirements and needs of those departments. I am a firm believer in keeping our fire and police departments fully equipped to protect and serve our citizens of Rome,” said Sparace, who also sits on the Public Safety Committee.
“Like the mayor said, ‘We will never compromise on public safety.’ Another highlight from the mayor’s address that I thought was spot on was that we need to keep providing equipment and supplies to ensure that city services are delivered to our residents at the highest level that we can without any delay. The administration also needs to ensure that they continue to bolster our initiatives to heighten the quality of life within our city.”
Sparace said he also felt the city’s vehicle leasing program would be a benefit by helping to reduce expenses.
“We need to continue to increase revenue for our city, by finding creative and new ways to do this — thinking outside the box,” the First Ward councilor said. “As we continue to increase our sales tax base and have a stable level of long-term debt service, our city should be in good financial standing. As we grow and create new housing projects, like that within my ward — the Woodhaven Project — we give new housing options for people working in Rome, which currently live outside of Rome.”
It was during the recent flooding in August that hindered parts of the First Ward and other sections of the city, Sparace said. That is where improvements need to be made in communication with the administration and local residents, he said.
“I think we need to have a better open line of communication with the administration and the residents, perhaps we enact some kind of emergency system that each and every resident could be notified at once,” Sparace suggested. “I have discussed this with (Third Ward) Councilor (Kimberly) Rogers and she has a few good ideas that I think we need to take a look at.”
He said, “Lastly, hearing there will be no tax increase for property, water sewer and refuse will once again benefit the residents of Rome. Overall, the forecast for the budget presented by the mayor looks promising. I look forward to looking at the budget as a whole and working with the mayor and her staff, to make sure the city not only the gets what they need, but also that we are fiscally responsible when spending the hard earned tax dollars of our residents.”
No hikes for water, sewer
Second Ward Councilor John B. Mortise said he was pleased that the proposed budget calls for no property tax increase as well as no increase in the water or sewer tax.
“COVID has taken a financial burden on everyone, not just our city,” Mortise said. “We are lucky enough to get help to fit our daily needs that will not set us back on the budget.”
Mortise also commended the development of the Woodhaven housing project, which will provide modern, brand new homes and help bring in additional tax revenues for the city.
The Second Ward councilor said the city should also take into account whether the city would actually benefit from long-term solar projects, which has been a high topic of discussion recently in city government. He said he believes Rome should stay true to its “Copper City” moniker, rather than “Solar City,” and limit the number of solar farms being developed.
Other items will need careful consideration as budget hearings with departments continue in the coming weeks, Mortise said.
“Sometimes I see more wants in a budget than actual needs, so there are a few things I disagree with in the budget, but hopefully we’ll find some answers or solutions with the upcoming budget meetings,” he said.
Eye on sales tax rates
Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers said she looked forward to hearing more information about increased projections in sales tax rates in the city.
“I was happy to see that the administration was able to craft a budget which keeps property tax rates stable and has no increase in water or sewer rates. Over the course of the next few weeks, the council will be meeting with the department heads to see if there are any additional opportunities for savings without sacrificing services,” said Rogers.
She said, “I’ll be interested in getting more detail on not only expenses, but the projected revenues including a significant bump in sales tax. Now that the city has a track record in leasing vehicles, we’ll be able to see how that program is performing and how it is impacting our central maintenance costs.”
Rogers said the mayor also indicated there would be difficult choices made in the police budget to move forward with adding body cameras for officers. Mayor Izzo indicated it would be a $50,000 to $60,000 expense per year over the next five years for operating expenses.
“I fully support implementing the body cams as soon as possible,” said the Third Ward councilor. “However, I will also be looking at what was cut to support that program as well as what overall impact any of the cuts will have in keeping our officers and community safe. Providing the police and fire departments with the tools they need to protect the community, as well as themselves, is of the utmost importance.”
New housing important
Fourth Ward Councilor Ramona L. Smith complimented the mayor and her administration for a “job well done” in meeting the difficult challenges of the pandemic. She said staff continue to put together a comprehensive and fiscally-responsible budget that accomplishes community goals, such as quality of life initiatives and economic development.
“It is commendable that 2022 will be the fifth year of a zero increase in property tax and will alleviate the financial burden on current property owners,” Smith said. “Construction projects such as the Air City Lofts, with an additional 100 apartments, single family homes at Woodhaven and 64 apartment units at Copper City Lofts, will continue to add to property tax revenue. Additionally, it influences the cost of buying houses, renting and can attract investors.”
Smith said the budget also provides benefits to the health and safety of residents through improvements to infrastructure, such as repair of bridges and protecting the city’s water supply by providing funding for inspection and repairs to update Boyd and Kessinger Dams.
“I am pleased and support the funding for equipment, training and updated technology for the police (including body cameras) and fire departments which are important to the safety and welfare of the community,” said Smith. “In summary, the mayor has given a transparent and sound budget for the councilors and department heads to review and finalize.”
Use of fund balance
In addition to commending the budget’s zero tax increase, Fifth Ward Councilor Frank R. Anderson was also appreciative of the declined reliance on the city’s fund balance by $602,690 to more fiscally conservative amount of $619,722.
“In previous years, the reliance on the fund balance appropriation was well over $1 million per year. However, the budget does rely on sales tax growth of $1,041,000, which contains sound reasoning, but it also relies on there not being any extenuating circumstances that impact sales tax revenue, such as we experienced in the past due to COVID-19,” said Anderson.
As part of the budget review, the Fifth Ward councilor said he anticipates a significant amount of discussion regarding the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The CIP is funded through a number of different sources, such as the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, the American Recovery Funding from the pandemic, and several other sources.
“It’s important that we review where the money is coming from for each of the planned purchases and projects, as well as the discussion of whether the proposed expense is a ‘want’ versus a ‘need,’” Anderson said. “All in all, the proposed budget for 2022 is very good news for the taxpayers of the City of Rome, and sets us up for not only good things for 2022, but also for the future of Rome.”
Sixth Ward Councilor Riccardo D. Dursi Jr. complimented the city’s workforce for all their hard work and dedication over the last year, navigating all the challenges brought on by COVID-19.
“Any time the budget has a zero tax increase, it is a testament to all the hard work over the past year by everyone — from Mayor Izzo, the department heads and every single worker, adapting and reimagining how the city runs,” said Dursi. “I am looking forward to studying how the vehicle lease agreements are helping our budget. I am glad to see quality of life line items such as Jervis Public Library, RACC (Rome Art & Community Center), the senior citizens centers, the Capitol Theatre, the Rome Historical Society, and others are continuing to be supported.”
The sixth ward councilor also spoke for his support of police body cameras being included in the proposed budget.
“I am also happy to see the capital plan has the body cams for the police, and important fire apparatus to help protect Rome, and the Rome Art & Community Center window upgrades are in it as well,” he said. “As chair of the the Parks and Recreation Committee, I look forward to helping to work on a more detailed plans with our aging park buildings, and equipment.”
Specific details sought
Seventh Ward Councilor R. Robert Tracy said he appreciates that the 0% increase in the real property tax rate will help encourage more people to come make Rome their home.
“We know that costs are increasing, so holding the line on taxes and fees while providing the level of services that our residents have come to expect is commendable,” Tracy said. “I look forward to meeting with the department heads over the next several weeks to learn more specific details about the budget.”
Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli applauded the 0% increase in real property taxes and the significant work by department heads in creating a “fiscally sound” plan that allows for city employees to have the resources they need to better serve the community.
“The council has a fiduciary duty to review the budget and the Capital Plan to ensure we allocate resources in the best possible way. Over the next month, we will meet with department heads to drill down into their individual budgets and really get into the details,” Viscelli said. “It’s important for the council to do an in-depth review not only for this year’s budget, but also to have an overview of the long-term plan for the city’s financial stability.”