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Census data can’t make counties come to senses

OBSERVER file photo Residents can stomach merged sports teams, such as Clymer-Sherman-Panama football, but still have a major disdain for consolidating schools.

Rust-belt Chautauqua and Warren counties are both no strangers to the disappointment that comes with the annual U.S. Census information. Since 1970, the two entities have combined to see a reduction of 32,524 residents from the region.

From 2020 to 2023, Chautauqua County declined from 126,032 to 124,891. Warren County went from 38,585 to 37,572 during that same period, according to the most recent numbers that were announced last month.

How do local elected leaders normally attempt to fix the constant downsizing? Mostly with gimmicks — and faint hopes that the bigger spenders from either Albany or Harrisburg will come to the rescue with more funding.

Since the COVID pandemic that brought two major federal infusions of cash — from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, better known as CARES funding, and the American Rescue Plan Act — local schools and governments are realizing the pain of a new era. They all have tough choices to make in the coming months and the coming years.

In New York, taxpayers have been overly generous when it comes to school budgets. Across the state, 97% of plans were approved by voters last month for the new school year that starts in September. Though this electorate is often quick to blame out-of-control spending in Albany for the woes of much of Western New York, they do not understand they are their own worst enemy.

By constantly approving spending plans — many with increases — residents are sending a subliminal, yet important message to those in the capital: Even though we believe we are overtaxed, we will support paying more for our schools and the votes prove it.

Municipalities are in a much different situation. The two county cities, both of which lost population compared to 2022, are on a dangerous path. Dunkirk learned in March it was reaching a fiscal crisis and was required to borrow more than $18 million from the state.

Within weeks, its bond rating fell from A- to BBB- by S&P Global Ratings. It later withdrew the rating and noted a negative outlook.

“There are risks related to the city’s financial management policies and practices, which we now consider vulnerable, and its inability to maintain structural balance as highlighted by auditor findings in its fiscal years 2020 and 2021 audit and its inability to produce the fiscal 2022 audit on a timely basis,” S&P noted in its rating.

Jamestown is treading water as well. This month, Mayor Kim Ecklund alerted City Council members to a potential $2.9 million deficit that is due to overestimations in revenues and higher than expected expenses.

“We are doing some things to try to decrease that number but I just didn’t think it was fair to keep that from you,” Ecklund told council members.

Massive — and minor — overspending habits are not signs of efficiencies.

In Warren County, there is a greater focus on the school district that is made up of four high schools: Warren Area, Eisenhower, Youngsville and Sheffield. Last year, the district made a difficult choice to have Sheffield students travel to Warren for core courses.

That decision did not go over well with the Sheffield community. But a rude reality came forth from a former board member in early May who complained about student population declines.

“We’ve got this fascination with bricks and mortar,” Joe Colosimo said while addressing the current school board. “Nobody wants to stand up here… Save Our Schools, 2 Schools 1 Fight, and say ‘Yes, we are the reason the district is in debt as deeply as it is.'”Warren County is aging,” he said, with high poverty and high fixed incomes rates. “We ignore that because we want mascots. We need two schools at most. One most likely.”

These fiscal realities bring us back to the population problem. While the number of residents has decreased for five decades, governments and school districts traditionally go against the grain. They maintain or, in some cases, increase employees — especially on the administrative side — while the numbers they serve continue to decline.

Both counties have attempted campaigns recently to celebrate new residents. Warren Worx, which aims at a branding campaign to increase workforce numbers, kicked off this week. The effort has raised plenty of questions from community members and leaders.

Chautauqua County is of the same mindset. Its Live CHQ and Choose CHQ campaign unveiled in April aims to bring in new residents and business.

Maybe leadership in both counties needs to quit thinking big and deal with reality. Both have been shrinking for more than 50 years.

Instead, put a greater focus on right-sizing — not fantasizing through branding — with these two counties that are oversaturated with schools and small governments while filled with natural treasures. Even if residents misguidedly want higher taxes, there are fewer here who can keep paying to support the vast entities.

John D’Agostino is the editor of The Post-Journal, OBSERVER and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-487-1111, ext. 253.

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