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New York state comptroller report shows Watertown not under fiscal stress

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As the City Council begins work on its new budget, Watertown officials can take some comfort knowing that the state does not see the city in fiscal distress.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli last week released his annual list of fiscal stress scores for upstate cities and several villages. Information regarding counties, school districts and towns will be made public later this year. This is the second year that Mr. DiNapoli’s office has released fiscal stress reports.

Based on a 100-point scale, the city of Watertown was graded at 9.6 percent for fiscal stress. Public bodies are designated as being in significant fiscal stress if they are graded between 65 and 100 percent, moderate fiscal stress when graded between 55 and 65 percent and susceptible to fiscal stress if graded between 45 and 55 percent. There is no designation for municipalities graded lower than 45 percent.

“Since implementing the system last year, we have evaluated the fiscal condition of nearly 2,300 municipalities and school districts across the state,” Mr. DiNapoli said in a news release issued by his office Friday. “This information has been well received by local officials and taxpayers, and it’s clear that we have created a tool that has helped them better understand their community’s true financial picture. But our work is not done. The value in our system will be borne out over time as it helps guide local budgeting decisions and the development of long-term financial plans.”

Low scores do not mean that taxing bodies have no fiscal concerns. Watertown officials are poring over the proposed $39 million budget. One recommendation to trim expenses is to eliminate three of the city’s seven playgrounds.

“City officials are calling the proposed cuts a restructuring of the program as little-used playgrounds would not reopen this summer,” according to a story Monday in the Watertown Daily Times. “As a result, Parks and Recreation Superintendent Erin E. Gardner said, most of the activities would be held at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds playground. However, the activities and programs that the Parks and Recreation Department has added during the past two years will remain, city officials said.”

“The North Elementary School, Thompson Park and East Hills playgrounds would be staffed, while Academy, North Hamilton and Portage playgrounds would not be open this summer,” the story reported. “The deteriorating Thompson Park pool also would not be staffed this summer. The move to shutter the 90-year-old pool was expected since the Watertown City Council has discussed in the past whether it was worth it to make major repairs or replace it.”

Officials said these changes would be appropriate as these playgrounds are used by substantially fewer people than they were years ago. The proposed budget calls for spending on the Parks and Recreation Department to be reduced from $129,366 to $65,671.

Time will tell how feasible the budget that is passed will prove to be for the city. But officials are starting to demonstrate how they avoided being listed in fiscal stress in Mr. DiNapoli’s report.

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