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Property Tax Up, Essential Services Saved in Proposed City Budget

Patti Singer

Calls for police and fire will continue to be answered speedily and trash still will be picked up on schedule even as the city faces financial pressures caused by COVID-19.

Public safety was the top priority of residents who responded to a telephone town hall and online survey as Mayor Lovely Warren prepared the 2020-21 city budget.

On May 15, she submitted a proposed $529.6 million spending plan to City Council. The plan calls for the city to use some reserves – its “rainy day” fund – and to raise property taxes on homeowners by a total of $9 million.

The total budget is $26 million less than the amended budget for the current year and reflects austerity dictated by the pandemic.

Warren said the city headed into the budget process knowing it had to close a $40.5 million gap. That increased to $64.4 million over the past two months.

“As I have said before, COVID-19 is a public health crisis that has become a fiscal crisis for Rochester and cities across America,” Warren said in an online news conference.

The budget assumes a decrease of $17.6 million in state aid and a reduction of more than $24 million in sales tax – two of the city’s three major sources of revenue.

“The impact of these losses can’t be understated,” she said.

The actual loss is sale tax may depend on whether cases of COVID-19 remain stable as businesses reopen. A spike in cases could send the community back to square one, prolonging the economic impact of the pandemic. On May 15, Monroe County began the first phase of reopening with some manufacturing, construction and curbside pick-up for retail. It will be at least two weeks – the incubation period for the virus — before the second phase begins.

The city has stopped discretionary spending and non-essential hiring, and in early May announced furloughs, job shares and layoffs. Those actions saved $16 million.

Budget director Chris Wagner said the city takes a conservative approach to budgeting. However, neither he nor Warren gave specifics about what services would be affected if COVID-19 continued to ravage budgets.

While the city is putting off some capital projects, it is continuing with work on La Marketa on North Clinton Avenue, Roc the Riverway downtown and the Neighborhood Police Section Office on East Main Street.

The city also is supporting small businesses. Warren said that approximately $600,000 from the emergency grant program has been allocated to nearly 300 local employers.

Property tax is the other main source of revenue. Warren said the increase was necessary to preserve essential services, which include meal distribution at R-Centers.

She said the increase would cost the “typical homeowner” approximately $2.57 per week or $133.79 per year.

Warren’s budget presentation put the typical home value at $87,900.

The typical business tax bill would decrease by $243.94 a year. The typical business value was listed in the presentation at $307,000.

City Council is scheduled to hold budget hearings on June 3, 9 and 10. Council votes on the budget on June. 16.