This year’s budget negotiation process has been primarily free of controversy, without any major tax bumps or contentious issues to be spoken of so far, though the final draft is still under discussion.
In fact, the only increase of any exorbitant amount came in the stormwater fund, though that was exorbitant indeed: after a program budget of $888,799 in 2018, the stormwater fund is slated to receive over $1.5 million this year, an increase of more than $600,000 that represents a 60 percent jump in funding.
The new local law would implement higher quarterly tax prices on residents’ stormwater fees, which have been at $12 for 1-, 2- and 3- family homes as well as all other lots. If approved, and the new rates did have wide support among Common Council, it would raise quarterly stormwater fees to $14.75 for 1-, 2- and 3- family homes, while lots with any other type of structure will have to pay $21.75 per quarter for every 2300 square feet of impervious surfaces on the property, most likely highly-trafficked parking lots.
Or at least, momentarily receive it. Once the funds are collected, the additional money, $560,000 to be exact, is to be diverted via interfund transfer into the city’s general fund, under which it will be used to fund a new streets and facilities crew. The crew to be hired, according to City Attorney Ari Lavine, will be used to conduct necessary infrastructure repairs and improvements, something certain parts of Ithaca sorely need. Judging by the budget, it looks as if the city will be able to hire eight new workers to form the team, while also covering some other stormwater-related expenses that otherwise would come directly from the general fund.
The only member of Common Council to rise issue of the stormwater fee increase was Cynthia Brock, who represents the First Ward. With such a sizable increase, she wanted to know more information, and in a statement to the Ithaca Times said she was prepared to vote against the inclusion of the increase in the final budget proposal in the absence of more specific details about exactly what the money was going to. Additionally, she wanted to know if some of the larger entities in Ithaca that do pay property taxes, unlike Cornell University had been consulted about the considerable tax raises they would see.
“The main information we have is that there is a gap in stormwater funding, that $560,000 of newly raised stormwater funds are to be funneled into the general fund, and that by transferring this money the city will be able to afford a streets and facilities crew,” Brock wrote. “From a business and residential development standpoint, an 81% increase to stormwater fees for government, educational, and commercial properties and apartment complexes is a sudden and overwhelming financial hit to any organization. A $9 increase [per year] to 1-,2- and 3-family homes is also not insubstantial.”
The city provided that justification later, in the form of a memo distributed last week which detailed where the money would go and how much money had been spent in the past to cover storm-water related expenses. According to the memo, $860,000 annual stormwater expenses have been coming from the general fund. With the newly gathered $560,000, the city should be able to only take $300,000 from the general fund.
The city’s case for the increases rests on the ability to indirectly charge large properties, especially those that are tax-exempt (of which there are many). Since the cost per property is based on the amount of impervious surfaces that they have, which contribute dirty, polluted water runoff when there are storms, the theory is to extract more money from those properties, as they create more of a pollution burden.
“To state the obvious, tax exempt owners don’t pay taxes, we all know that but we don’t think about it with respect to lots of services that the city is nonetheless providing to those owners,” Lavine said. “Some of those services the city cannot charge in the way of a fee, but stormwater is one that we can, so if we can charge a fee for it and the tax-exempt owners throughout the city are receiving those services but aren’t paying anything for it in taxes, might make sense to charge a fee for it instead.”