NIAGARA FALLS – Compact, easily digestible fiscal updates for New York’s local governments will be available online soon, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced today.
The comptroller unveiled prototypes of the fiscal profiles his office will be compiling by using Niagara Falls and Salamanca, the two cities crippled by the Seneca Nation of Indians’ refusal to pay a share of casino revenues to the state, as examples.
DiNapoli said neither city is yet in need of a fiscal control board such as those in place in Buffalo and Erie County, but both are by far worse off than the typical city.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster, who hosted DiNapoli’s City Hall news conference, said he intends to create a “blue-ribbon advisory panel” to help him with the Falls’ fiscal management.
Although he said the panel would have no legal powers, he said it would be helpful to have more people with financial know-how to assist the city.
Dyster called it “our own version of a control board,” but said Niagara Falls doesn’t need a real one.
“Every once in a while, someone on the Niagara Falls City Council will mention that we should have a control board,” Dyster said. “That power resides here, with the City Council. To my mind, a control board is what happens when you’re not making the tough decisions.”
“Our goal is to elevate the discussion, provide more thoughtful information,” DiNapoli said. He said his staff is available to provide information, not to make decisions for local leaders.
The information in the reports comes from data that cities already were reporting to Albany, but it’s going to be regularly posted instead of kept for internal use, DiNapoli said.
Eventually, the fiscal monitoring system will calculate an overall score of fiscal stress for municipalities and school districts that will be publicized and posted on the comptroller’s website. DiNapoli hopes the system will provide early warnings of trouble so it can be reversed.
“It all gets back to long-term planning. We encourage that,” he said.
The Niagara Falls report condenses into six pages a tale of woe that won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has lived there for a while.
The city’s population, now 50,000, is less than half of what was it was at its peak in 1960. Of those remaining, 17.6 percent of families live below the poverty line.
Almost 14 percent of the buildings in Niagara Falls are vacant, and the median home price is $65,400. For the cities outside New York City, the median vacancy rate is 9 percent and the median home price is $96,000.
Also, 45 percent of the assessed valuation in the city is tax-exempt, compared to the state median for small cities of 32 percent.
Niagara Falls has done without $60 million in casino money in the past three years, because of the Senecas’ dispute with the state over gaming exclusivity.
In Salamanca, whose population is down to 5,800, the poverty rate is 15 percent, and 62 percent of property value is tax-exempt. About 90 percent of the city’s land area lies within the Senecas’ Allegany Reservation.
DiNapoli’s report says Salamanca could run out of cash before its fiscal year ends March 31, since its revenue shortfall of $2.5 million this year is 35 percent of its budget.
Before the Senecas closed the spigot, Salamanca was enjoying double-digit annual revenue increases – and nearly 10 percent average annual spending increases, DiNapoli reported.
“The demands on city government did not go away when casino revenues did,” Salamanca Mayor Jeffrey L. Pond said in a statement. “Comptroller DiNapoli’s report details why it is so difficult to balance our budget and pay for the vital services that our residents depend on.”