Publisher’s notebook: City’s payroll purgatory grows deeper

Payroll: City tax base not growing

OBSERVER Photo Adding payroll costs to a city with a budget of more than $22 million was no big deal for these four elected officials.

Dunkirk this week decided to dole out more of your money in creating a new position dedicated to handling human resources. Mayor Wilfred Rosas says over the long term, the $60,000 a year position will save the municipality money.

But you cannot spend your way out of future financial troubles. Since 2016, when the NRG Energy Inc. plant on the waterfront quit producing power, Dunkirk has relied on transition aid from New York state to make ends meet. That’s because of the reduction in the payment in lieu of taxes by the company by 85 percent. Over the last two years the transition funds from Albany have been a generous $3.7 million, instead of about $7 million from NRG.

It’s a big gift — but with the projected state deficit of $4.4 billion for the coming fiscal year, city leadership cannot count on that same amount for 2019.

What it can bank on, however, is continued higher wage expenses — and it’s nothing a new human resources director can fix. Even with the new contracts, payroll is going up. It’s a necessary evil of running a municipality.

When things get bleak and businesses close, municipal workers — and school district employees for that matter — are able to easily weather the storm on the backs of the taxpayer.

What magic will the human resources director have to stop those pay increases? Absolutely nothing.

“My concern with it is still the same one that I discussed with the mayor months ago when this first came up. My concern isn’t even necessarily the city’s fault, it’s a systemic issue,” said Andrew Woloszyn, councilman at-large, who cast the only no vote regarding the post. “That issue is if we have a problem that we can’t get certain things done in the office, then we should fix the root of the problem instead of trying to add another layer on top of it to try to cover up the problem.”

According to 2017 figures, payroll makes up about $8.7 million of the more than $22.2 million city budget. That does not take into account the benefit packages that comes with the wages, which ups the ante to more than $12 million — or 54 percent of the spending.

Just how many employees in the city are scheduled to make more than $60,000 this year? Counting the new position, 78 of the 160 — or 49 percent — listed on seethroughny.org will make that amount or more.

Where is all the new revenue coming to help the city make its payroll? It’s not getting much help from private investment. In the past month, Councilman Shaun Heenan spoke about the lack of development at the former Masonic Temple site. He referred to it as an eyesore. No buildings in the empty lot translates to little tax money for the city.

In August, many thought the city caught a break when properties previously purchased on Central Avenue by the United Secular American Center for the Disabled Inc. went into foreclosure and were repurchased by the trust of the Robert K. Lesser family. At that time, there was some hope — started by the family members themselves– there would be an effort to fix up the properties and make them more marketable.

“Should we keep the buildings, which it seems like we are, we’ve told everybody that we will keep them in pristine condition and do whatever it takes to renovate the buildings as necessary,” said James Best, an architect and one of Lesser’s sons, after the deal.

Over the last six months, however, there is no evidence to indicate any “pristine” work — or new tenants.

And how about that site the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency purchased from ConAgra on Talcott Street? Yes, it’s still in county hands — and that means no tax revenue.

Dunkirk’s hopes for the future, truly, comes from the town and Athenex. With that state-supported project, the economic spin-off may come into the city. But until then, there’s not hope for much more investment.

So if you’re looking at the bottom line, and with Albany in financial distress, how do you approve another $60,000 position with no new money coming in? No worries for the city government leaders. The taxpayers will make it up.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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