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Warren's budget ready for scrutiny


Mayor Lovely Warren presented her proposed budget for the coming fiscal year on Friday. And while it contains nothing dramatic – no big layoffs, no big tax increases, no major new programs – the budget is noteworthy for the picture of Rochester it provides. Now it heads to analysis: by the public, City Council, and Warren's political opponents.

Like many cities, Rochester is coping with major challenges. It has the lion's share of the tax-exempt property in the county, and it has most of Monroe County's low-income neighborhoods, where property values are low. Demand for police services is high. Demands on public schools – which the city funds heavily – are enormous. Business and industry have declined, eroding the tax base.

Despite the challenges, through a succession of mayors and City Councils, city services have remained good. And there's been enough confidence in the city that property values in some neighborhoods have increased, strengthening the tax base. Downtown development is increasing.

Warren's proposed budget maintains current city services, increases some, and adds a few new ones. It cuts a few employee positions through attrition. And it gives homeowners a small tax cut. This is despite projected pay increases for employees, the rising cost of health benefits, loss of $6 million in state aid, a $4 million loss in fines from cancelling the red-light camera program, and other challenges.

The budget includes money to hire additional police officers and more staff at the Public Market; helps fund several job-training programs; and provides money for a wide range of programs for children and families: developmental screening for 3-year-olds, pregnancy prevention programs, school-based violence prevention programs, and literacy programs, for instance.

The city will continue its development of a Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will complete the solar farm at the former Emerson Street landfill, continue LED lighting upgrades, and complete the transition to single-stream recycling throughout the city.

The Warren administration balances the new budget partly through savings – everything from lower fuel and utility costs to delaying some road maintenance. There's also new revenue: higher sales tax revenue, the recent sale of Midtown's Parcel 2, more property tax revenue, more building permits. But it draws down the city's general fund balance, which City Council and others are certain to question.

Given the challenges, says Council's Finance Committee Chair Carolee Conklin, there's reason to worry about how much longer the city can maintain this tight balance.

Conklin said on Sunday that she's glad homeowners will be getting a bit of property-tax relief. But Conklin said she'll be looking at how Warren will offset the loss of state aid and red-light camera revenue, and how much she'll reduce the general fund balance.

County Legislator Jim Sheppard, who is challenging Warren in the September Democratic Primary, criticized Warren for "using a lot of the city's accumulated fund balances and slashing cash capital expenditures to fix the budget gap." Her plan "reflects the Jack Doyle – Maggie Brooks school of municipal finance" that risks the city's fiscal health, he said.

Former television reporter Rachel Barnhart, who is also challenging Warren in the Democratic primary, said the budget "increases spending but does nothing" to help people in poverty. Many Rochester apartment tenants will be hurt, she said, because commercial property owners' tax rates are going up, and landlords will pass on that increase to tenants. And she criticized Warren for failing to get more state and federal aid.

The public will get to give its own critique soon. City Council will hold hearings on June 7, 13, and 14 and will vote on the budget on June 20.