City Should Take State’s Helping Hand

It was only 15 short years ago Jamestown was facing significant deficits, huge tax increases and staff layoffs. While a state control board was never publicly mentioned, the situation in 1998 surely could have resulted had the city not taken corrective action.

The recent recognition of Jamestown’s improved bond status is a sign that, in the grand scheme of things, the city has much improved its financial status.

As the city nears completion of its 2014 budget, we ask a rhetorical question we asked a couple of weeks ago – what next?

The financial climb from 1998 to 2013 came at a cost. Much of the city’s cut and consolidation fruit has already been picked. Departments have been merged, positions have been redesigned for greater efficiency and staffing has been cut to bare-bones levels. As we wrote recently, a large number of potential cost savings relating to city personnel are impossible without state intervention.

Some, like the Manufacturer’s Association of the Southern Tier/Chamber of Commerce, think the city can go further. Recall MAST’s list of 19 cost-cutting ideas it released last year, which included some unwise suggestions like eliminating the city’s contingency budget and reducing housing demolitions, and some ideas that likely warrant further discussion, such as changing health insurance for city retirees to a Net Medicare plan, selling the Allen Park Ice Rink or possibly contracting for information technology services.

Here’s a better option.

Perhaps the city should examine participating in the state’s Financial Restructuring Board. It is no slight to local officials. They have, by all accounts, trimmed nearly all the fat from the city budget bone over the past 15 years by taking a hard look at city operations. By participating in the restructuring board – a 10-member group that would include state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and state Budget Director Robert Megna – the city may be alerted to some best practices that have been overlooked in the past. There is also a chance of receiving state grants to implement the non-binding board’s recommendations.

Make no mistake – participating in the restructuring board is no cure-all. It is much in the line of other proposals by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that, while helpful, will likely take years to fully pay off. Its recommendations are non-binding, however, meaning it is also no-harm, no-foul for the city to participate. Participation may also mean the city is on the state’s radar screen for mandate relief.

The Financial Restructuring Board is the state offering a helping hand to its cities. Jamestown should consider reaching out.