TOMPKINS: Getting the Facts Straight on the Garbage Fee

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By:   Kenny Tompkins

Niagara Falls City Councilman

Being an elected official is great when it’s clear to everyone what you’re doing is in their best interests. What I hate is when I have to make a decision that I know is unpopular on the surface, but ultimately is what’s right for the 48,000 residents I am elected to represent. 

The garbage fee is the perfect example of a no-win situation. I know many people are disappointed that I voted yes. I know very well that taxpayers are strapped and adding more of the city’s financial problems to their backs was the last thing I wanted to do.  This was not a vote where I wanted to say yes, but ultimately, this was the right decision for several reasons I want to stress. Here’s what you need to know:

1) Services wouldn’t have suffered. They would have been devastated.

If anyone thinks DPW services are limited now, what would have happened if we had to cut 30 DPW employees, 20 members of the NFPD, and 20 members of the NFFD. Streets would go days without plowing. Grass wouldn’t have been cut in the spring. Trees that needed trimming or removal would not be touched. The response time to police and fire calls would have slowed. There wouldn’t be enough officers to respond to nuisance complaints, like loud parties or fights or cars blocking driveways. We’d struggle to ticket people for parking or traffic violations, which are sources of revenue.

This isn’t a scare tactic. It’s the reality we would have faced.

Think, too, about who would have gotten pink slips. It wasn’t going to be those with several years in the system. It would be younger employees, those who are already contributing to their health insurance and who are required to live in the city. This would have put a greater burden on an older workforce who are doing physical jobs, meaning more injuries, comp time, and ultimately increases in overtime to cover for already short coverage. The impact of layoffs would have snowballed and cost us more. 

This year’s budget did include cuts. Sixteen positions were eliminated, seven of which meant layoffs. The council budget itself was cut by 23%.

2) Union contracts can’t just be “renegotiated.”

Keep in mind, like many city entities, most of our costs comes from personnel and legacy costs which are negotiated and in place for several years. We, as council, can’t demand that the union leadership reopen contracts. They have no reason to come to the table. So let’s stop pretending that was ever a possibility.

3) Our city’s bond rating would have plummeted. 

If we did nothing, if we continue to avoid making hard decisions, or following the recommendations of the State’s financial restructuring board or the prior city financial restructuring board, it will take our city’s bond rating down to junk bonds. This severely hampers our ability to borrow if we need to, and if we can get loans, our interest rates would be out of control. 

Both the state and the local restructuring boards have recommended for several years that we impose a garbage fee . If we don’t start listening to their advice, we will not be able to get help when we need it. Ideas to increase revenue, like the surcharge on state parks, would go nowhere.

4) We are still looking for ways to increase revenue.

We didn’t vote on this garbage fee until after we completed our budget meetings, the last of which was November 14. As a council, we went down every road we could find to make reasonable cuts that would be impactful. We made progress with making sure the commercial rate was dramatically less than 9 percent. We are striving to make it easier for businesses to stay here and more to open up shop. This means equalizing that two-tier tax rate. But remember, part of attracting new business and new homeowners means maintaining even minimal services. 

I know this is disappointing. I do not like having to pass this garbage fee on to you. I had to choose between a $3.48 a week charge vs. decimated services and even bigger financial devastation. I had to make a hard decision. I hope I’ve explained the bigger picture behind this vote. I hope you understand that I am looking out for all of our best interests, no matter how unpopular the decision has to be.

 

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