The financial challenges currently facing Niagara Falls are unfortunately not new.
For far too many years now, the city has found itself in a position of "barely getting by" instead of one of fiscal stability and strength.
Questions abound over how best to approach the situation moving forward.
What many local officials, city residents and business owners who are grappling with this issue seem to forget is that Niagara Falls has already received a set of guidelines for navigating its way out of its very serious fiscal difficulties.
Those guidelines were developed as a result of the city's voluntary involvement in a state program designed to help municipalities address their fiscal woes.
On June 19, 2017, the city received a Comprehensive Review Report from the Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments, a 10-member panel that includes the state comptroller, the attorney general, the secretary of state, and six other members appointed by the governor.
One of the recommendations made by the state restructuring board more than two years ago now was the imposition of a garbage user fee in the Falls.
Restructuring Board members noted, back in 2017, that refuse and recycling represented a cost of $3.5 million to the city, roughly 10 percent of the city's total property tax levy for that year. It also noted that not every property in the city is taxable as non-profits and tax-abated properties were not paying for the service or paying less than their full taxable valuation would have them pay.
The board noted that Niagara Falls had the 12th highest incidence of tax exempt value as a percentage of total valuation (44.25 percent) and the fifth highest incidence among counties statewide (35.9 percent).
"In order to address this issue, some cities have implemented user fees and accounted for them outside of the General Fund, typically as an enterprise fund," the restructuring board noted in its report. "This approach would convert a General Fund, property tax supported operation to an assumingly self-supported enterprise operation. The rationale is that although tax-exempt properties do not pay directly into the property tax system, they do tap the municipal service delivery infrastructure. In some cases – particularly for larger institutions – that service impact can be material."
In other words, contrary to popular opinion, the concept of a garbage user fee in the Falls was not dreamed up this past year by the current mayoral administration.
In reality, the fee was recommended by a state-sanctioned group city leaders, including members of the city council, agreed to lean on for financial advice years ago.
Restructuring board members noted that such fees are not new concepts and, in fact, have been developed in other local communities, like the City of Buffalo, in recent years.
"Under the fee program, costs related to the service are removed from the general fund (and, by extension, from the property tax) and shifted into a self-liquidating fund. Under the user fee framework, the city can charge all property owners an equitable rate, rather than just those who pay property taxes," the restructuring board noted.
Like most of our readers, we are leery of any sort of fee tied to municipal government or public services. We acknowledge that such fees tend to grow as years pass and the quality of the related service do not always keep pace.
Still, we're not inclined to ignore the findings of this report, considering it was developed by some of the best financial managers the state has to offer.
We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there are other ideas that aren't likely to be popular or widely accepted that were recommended by the restructuring board as well.
One of them is a city-wide property tax reassessment, which should have been done years ago and, largely due to lack of political will, hasn't been done now since 2003.
Making the tough calls is what city leaders are elected to do and while, from a political standpoint, voting to support the imposition of a citywide garbage user fee won't be viewed as the right thing by some constituents, those council members who may be reluctant to support the fee would do well to look back at the restructuring board's report and recommend all city residents and business owners do the same.
Many of the same people who are currently complaining about the fee also advocate for the state coming in to run the city through a state-sanctioned control board.
They either don't remember or don't realize that the state already created a 10-member panel of fiscal advisors to help guide the city's decision-making.
Niagara Falls doesn't need a control board.
What it could use is the people who are elected to make the hard calls in city government to follow the guidelines the state's Financial Restructuring Board put in place two-plus years ago now.