May 18, 2014

Editorial: Sound past; cautious future

The state has affirmed that former Plattsburgh Mayor Don Kasprzak, current Mayor Jim Calnon and the previous city Common Council took good care of the city’s finances.

It is up to the new councilors to build on that.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has been visiting cities across the state as his office assesses municipal financial stress. Often, he delivers bad news, as many communities are struggling.

But when he was in Plattsburgh recently, it was to declare that, so far, the city has “effectively navigated many of the fiscal-stress issues plaguing other upstate communities.”

City residents should look back with gratitude to Kasprzak and the councilors who kept firm control of city finances.

When Kasprzak was voted in, it was with the understanding that his main focus would be on managing costs and keeping taxes down. That had been his legacy as an alderman in the early 1990s. 

And Kasprzak delivered as promised.

The Comptroller’s Office noted that from 2002 to 2012, Plattsburgh revenues grew at an annual rate of 2.6 percent, while spending growth averaged just 2.1 percent.

Kasprzak created budgets with reasonable tax increases, restored a healthier fund balance, pushed department heads to curb spending, demanded union concessions on benefits and eliminated a $1 million Municipal Lighting Department deficit. The city now has the desirable AAA credit rating.

It wasn’t simply a matter of good budgeting, of course. The city is fortunate to have a fairly steady population (19,989 residents in 2010 compared to 20,172 in 1960), an expanding tax base (its median home value is $139,000 while the median city’s is $102,000) and a diverse economy that is boosted by its proximity to Canada, DiNapoli’s office pointed out.

But the report warned about factors that could hurt the city:

• Its median household income ($36,021) is noticeably less than the state median ($57,683).

• The child poverty rate of 28 percent is higher than the statewide rate of 21 percent.

• The city received only 9.3 percent of its revenue from sales taxes, while that figure for cities statewide is 21.7 percent.

• State aid accounted for 7.5 percent of the city’s revenues, much less than the 18 percent for cities statewide.

• In the past few years, the city has dipped more heavily into the fund balance, which has declined from a robust $5.2 million in 2010 to $1.9 million in 2012.

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