New York state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli Wednesday discussed with government leaders the results of his study of Watertowns finances. The report is extremely positive and points to the underlying success of this community, whose leadership has taken advantage of the economic opportunity offered by the presence of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum.
The report showed that over the last decade the citys revenues grew 4 percent annually while costs rose 3.4 percent a year. Watertowns revenue growth exceeded the growth rate of all New York state cities, providing the city the opportunity to reduce long-term debt.
Mr. DiNapolis evaluation shows that Watertowns property values grew 74 percent over the last half of the decade and the median city home value is $17,000 higher than higher than the statewide median.
The financial report shows that the city has benefited from strong management that kept track of growth, moderated spending and used targeted investment to improve the city. Much of the credit for this discipline should go to former City Manager Mary M. Corriveau, who was the main architect of the city budget during this period. The City Council can bask in the limelight today but should remember that Mrs. Corriveau provided the leadership and fiscal discipline that has resulted in an $8.9 million general fund balance.
The report does contain some statistics that should concern the council. The city is more dependent upon sales taxes than the rest of New Yorks cities. Sales tax provides 30 percent of the revenue the city needs, versus 20.5 percent for the other cities in the state. Property taxes produce only 13 percent of revenues, versus 25 percent statewide. The disparity between these two numbers should warn the council that its revenue stream is too dependent on volatile sales tax collections and that during economic distress the revenue base will be at risk.
The report reminds us that median household income in Watertown is $37,514 compared with the statewide median of $56,951 and that the citys unemployment rate is 9.2 percent, higher than the statewide rate of 8.5 percent.
The City Council should heed the warnings in the DiNapoli report. The council, not city professional management, is accountable to its residents for the citys economic outlook. The fact that median earnings are so low and that the city is so dependent upon sales taxes needs to be addressed by the council and should be worthy of substantive debate in this falls election. The prospect of this council focusing its attention on setting a course for prosperity is limited. Their record is unsatisfactory. Just over a year ago, they refused to extend Mrs. Corriveaus contract, expressing their discontent over her management. Now the state comptroller has independently affirmed the quality of Ms. Corriveaus stewardship.
The council has hired a competent, professional manager who has guided the council to a budget for the next fiscal year that meets the needs of the city. But she cannot be expected to develop a path to prosperity for Watertown. That is up the mayor and the City Council. The candidates for council now have a platform to expound upon to convince voters to endorse a vision for tomorrow.