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Syracuse Council: No more spending until mayor presents plan to fill $20 million budget gap

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO News (file photo)
Syracuse City Hall.

The Syracuse Common Council is holding its spending items until Mayor Ben Walsh comes up with a plan to fill the city’s $20 million budget gap. One councilor said the lack of a bailout from the state or federal governments, to make up for the revenue losses from the coronavirus shutdown, is expediting the need for action. 

Councilor-at-Large Tim Rudd said they’re a month into the fiscal year and still have not seen a plan from Mayor Walsh on how to close a budget gap, which could be tens of millions of dollars.

“And it seems less likely than ever that there’s going to be a bailout for municipalities,” Rudd said. “Some folks might have underestimated the magnitude of those shortfalls and they have overestimated the degree to which other governments would intervene to help us. Our financial realities is only going to get more challenging, the longer we delay.”

The mayor asked the council to withdraw about $1 million worth of spending items from this week’s agenda.

“I think that further reinforced that we don’t have a plan,” Rudd said. “So, let’s make sure we have a plan for every dollar and that we’re not spending on things that are going to make our situation worse moving forward.”

Rudd said there were critical items on this week’s agenda, like a $500,000 agreement with Onondaga County to improve the Skaneateles Lake watershed, where the city gets its drinking water, and fire department apparatus purchases, now put on hold.

One cost saving measure the mayor does want the council to sign off on is an early retirement plan, which could save the city $3 million.

“This is the best and biggest idea that has been presented to the council thus far, and it’s only a tenth of our potential shortfall,” Rudd said. “So, that right there highlights the intensity of the crisis facing the city’s budget.”

In response to the council’s spending freeze, the mayor has agreed to have a plan ready before the council votes again in a few weeks.

Read Walsh’s full statement below.

“Recognizing the severity of revenue loss to the City due to COVID-19 early on in the crisis, we began developing a financial contingency plan this spring with input from Councilor Rudd and other members of our Financial Contingency Committee. Financial ratings agencies cited this early planning effort as a reason the City’s bond rating was held steady this year. During the past months, I’ve repeatedly pushed for state and federal help but have said all along we need to plan for the worst which is what we have done. Implementing spending cuts at this magnitude will hurt the economy, the public, and city employees. Holding the expenditures identified today is consistent with our agreement with the Council to withdraw pre-authorizations for capital expenditures and open purchase orders – which was committed to last week. It is our goal to update the Council on the final contingency spending plan prior to its next meeting on Aug. 24. Without federal aid, the plan will be targeted for implementation beginning right after Labor Day. Delaying action on the proposed Voluntary Retirement Incentive Program, however, complicates our ability to project potential cost savings before the Council’s next meeting.”

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.