For years, decades even, the City of Troy has tried to get Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to pay for city services and for years, decades even, the college has refused.
The easiest way to accomplish that would be to charge a nominal public safety fee, as it’s been called in the past, as part of the tuition and that money would pass through the college to the city. But, the city can’t just impose a fee on RPI or any other specific entity without imposing the same fee on all properties, like the recycling fee. And it can’t tax any of the non-profits.
As I mentioned, this has been going on for decades. Now, though, there is a sense of urgency because the city is in the worst financial shape in 20 years.
Councilman Jim Gordon, R-District 1, while appearing on Talk 1300, said he and his Republican colleague, Councilman Dean Bodnar, R-District 3, will propose a possible way to get some much needed cash from RPI and other non-profits.
It’s an out-of-the-box idea, and I have no idea if the city can find a way to implement it, but on the surface it is worth exploring.
According to Gordon, he wants to take all or part of the public safety budget – which equals about half of the city’s total spending per year – and rather than pay for it with taxes spread the bill out among all the properties in the city – including non-profits like RPI – and have them all pay a fee. By bringing such huge non-profits like Samaritan and St. Mary’s Hospital and RPI into the mix, the average homeowner will see an overall decrease in what he or she owes Uncle Sam per year while at the same time it represents a huge, untapped source of much needed revenue.
There are all sorts of road blocks in the way – including how much each property will pay, how to collect the fee, what happens if the fee isn’t paid, odds are the state Legislature will have to pass some sort of law and God knows they can complicate tying a shoe and that’s if the city can even come up with a rationale home rule request.
But, as reported in the Times Union, the city is facing an $800,000 deficit, which is more than 1 percent of the budget. If the city runs the deficit through the end of the year it risks again coming under the auspices of the state Comptroller’s Financial Control Board. That means the Comptroller will pretty much take away the city’s check book and every other aspect of the city’s finances.
Not surprisingly, police and fire overtime are over budget as is temporary help, which is surprising. At the same time some revenues aren’t coming in as predicted such as building permit fees – which I wrote about more than a year ago – and collection of vehicle and traffic fines.
My guess is if the administration of Mayor Lou Rosamilia is saying there is an $800,000 deficit then it’s really $1 million-plus, which will be even harder to make up before the books are closed at year’s end. Or maybe all the mayor, a former accounting professor at Hudson Valley Community College, is worried about is getting the deficit below the 1 percent threshold, or about $750,000.
And that’s not going to help out next year or the year after that at all. If anything it will just make it harder to get a balanced budget. All of the unions are without a contract, reserves have been spent down in recent years and the city already deferred $1.6 million in pension costs from next year to 2016.
Troy maybe in a little worse shape than other upstate, older industrial cities but it’s not alone in its financial woes. It’s also not alone in having a huge number of non-profits – close to 50 percent – that require a huge amount of city services they don’t pay for.
That’s why Gordon’s idea is at least worth exploring. Of course there will be naysayers and it certainly isn’t going to be an easy lift. But it’s better to get a little creative and explore new ideas rather than point fingers and unilaterally raise taxes on the average homeowner.