We're by no means experts in municipal finance and, for the record, we have not drilled down on any of the proposed spending plans for Niagara County or the cities of Lockport and Niagara Falls.
What we will say, based only on our cursory review and understanding of the basic elements of these budgets, is that, given what's been happening in our economy and in our world this year, we expected much worse.
The proposed 2021 county budget cuts spending and jobs while increasing the tax levy by 2.95%. If approved, it would allow the county to remain under the state-imposed tax cap for a 10th straight year.
In Niagara Falls, thanks in part to concessions from the city's public safety unions, Mayor Robert Restaino's proposed 2021 budget seeks to close a $4.5 million budget gap by making reductions in non-essential programs and calling for a modest property tax increase.
In Lockport, Mayor Michelle Roman’s proposed 2021 city budget drives a 1.58% property tax rate increase, which translates to about a $25 increase in the tax bill sent for an average property assessed at $80,000. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office, following a review of the proposed spending plan, deemed the expenditure and revenue projections "reasonable."
No home or business owner here likes to pay higher taxes, especially higher property taxes, which so often seem to not be commensurate with the level of services offered in return.
Still, in a year marked by unprecedented upheaval, which has contributed to significant declines in key revenue sources such as sales tax, it's hard to chide elected officials for recommending modest property tax increases. The alternative is to underfund and undermine existing services. And, while we're not sure "relieved" is the right word for it, we are glad that hefty tax increases and mass layoffs have, for now at least, been avoided.
This is not to say taxpayers shouldn't be concerned about the finances of their municipal governments moving forward. As the pandemic continues, public coffers will be further drained and the pressure on municipal leaders will increase. They'll have to try to do even more with less or ask taxpayers to contribute more in order to ensure essential services.
We must all hope the virus is kept at bay in 2021 through the promise of what appear to be rapidly approaching vaccines and more effective treatments.
Under an ideal scenario, once the virus is better contained, the economy will roar back, bringing our hometowns and our county with it.
Sound decision-making, leadership and financial planning is as important as ever and next year will likely require more of accepting less until the situation really improves.
For now, though, we're OK with what local municipal leaders have put forth as spending plans. We're also encouraged by the willingness of the public safety unions in Niagara Falls to give back a bit to help their community navigate this crisis.