New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has launched one new program and is planning another that will help municipalities better manage their finances. Both are useful efforts that not every municipality is welcoming. Go figure.
It should go without saying that the state’s financially stressed municipalities can use all the expert help they can muster in planning their spending, both short- and long-term. That would be true at any time, but it is especially so now, as the state and all of its lower governments continue to flounder in the aftermath of a catastrophic recession.
To better arm municipal decision makers, DiNapoli has begun offering “fiscal profiles” of the state’s cities, starting with Niagara Falls and Salamanca, two urban centers whose finances have been undermined by the fight over casino money between the Seneca Nation of Indians and New York State.
The reports look at demographic information, including population trends, income and home prices, as well as the tax base, current and projected budget circumstances, bond ratings and debt. For the most part, they are snapshots of existing conditions and future likelihoods. Unlike a traditional audit, they offer no criticism or recommendations, but describe the landscape in which city leaders must operate.
That stands to be a useful tool not just for municipal officials – maybe not even mainly for them – but for voters and taxpayers who, if they choose, can use it to gauge how well their elected officials are meeting the needs of their village, town, city or county.
More usefully, even, DiNapoli is planning to begin a Fiscal Stress Monitoring System for the state’s local governments and school districts. As proposed, the system will evaluate each entity’s financial indicators – year-end fund balance, operating deficits, fixed costs, etc. – as well as its environmental indicators, including such factors as population, age, poverty, employment base, constitutional tax limit and more.
Each entity would be rated separately on each category, and those found to be under stress would have access to services from the Comptroller’s Office, including budget reviews, technical assistance, multiyear financial planning and training.
These are valuable tools for all local governments and school districts, yet DiNapoli reports that some don’t like the idea. It’s hard to imagine any reason for such resistance, other than not wanting to deal with pressure from voters and taxpayers.
It’s an understandable aversion to which the appropriate response is, “Oh, well. Deal with it.” The state and its local governments are under severe strain, not only from the aftereffects of the recession, but from the beating delivered by Hurricane Sandy. DiNapoli has taken a forward-looking stance on this issue, offering governments a new tool to help improve their performance, whether they want it or not. His office is taking on new tasks to do this. Taxpayers should be pleased.