At tonight's Rye City Council meeting, Rye Mayor Steve Otis presented his Annual Message. It's Rye's own version of the State of the Union address. Otis provided the transcript to MyRye.com and it is presented here in its entirety (also see last year's Annual Message):
It is again my privilege to present the Mayor’s Annual Message and highlight both the work being done in our community and the challenges we face.
Rye continues to be regarded as an outstanding community because of the level of volunteer involvement of our residents, the strength of our not-for-profit organizations and schools, and the professionalism and dedication of the staff of our City government. We are all part of a community fabric that makes Rye exceptional and that gives our work together additional meaning.
Rye has relied on these strengths throughout the generations. In good times and challenging days, our community fabric has been our backbone. Now we face what is likely the most serious economic threat to our nation and our region since the 1930’s. With retrenchment and change in the financial services industry, communities like ours in the metropolitan area will feel the impact directly.
We may have concerns about how long it will take the national economy to recover. Let me make it clear tonight that I have no doubt that the City of Rye will weather the downturn with great care and maintain financial strength as a community. My confidence is based upon actions we took in November and December with the adoption of the 2009 budget and our plans for further review of opportunities for additional savings in the New Year.
On a financial basis, the City of Rye government remains one of the strongest local governments in New York State. We are one of a handful to hold a Moodys Aaa bond rating. Our level of property taxation for the municipal part of the tax bill is among the lowest in Westchester. Our undesignated fund balance is healthy, as is our level of debt. Our local government provides a full mix of municipal services that residents expect, and at a cost effective price.
Our projections for revenue loss for 2009 are that we will be down about a million dollars based upon reduced elastic revenues. To address that expectation, the 2009 budget adopted by the City Council reduced spending by $1.1 million compared to the 2008 budget. We eliminated over $2 million in capital projects that had been suggested, authorizing only essential infrastructure projects. We reduced the tax increase by 1.47 percent below the City Manager’s proposal and eliminated or deferred over $200,000 in additional spending not reflected in the tax rate reduction.
Until the economy recovers, projects that can be deferred will wait; projects that focus on flooding, public safety, or are time sensitive will proceed as we are able. In all cases, we will continue our efforts to seek outside funding to assist in the projects and needs of the City.
Within the budget process, the Council and city staff searched for additional opportunities to reduce spending. We accomplished significant reductions in the budget process. Now, outside the limited time frame of the budget deliberations, the Council plans to review additional policy areas that affect revenues and costs.
We believe we have fairly estimated the impact of the loss of elastic revenue such as interest income, mortgage recording tax income, and sales tax proceeds based upon information available in November and December.
Our goal for the beginning of 2009 will be to provide contingency plans if the economic picture worsens beyond our projections. With the assistance of the Finance Committee and Department heads, we plan to look for new opportunities to reduce costs and develop estimates for savings for reductions in services if they become necessary. Council members will focus on a number of areas where we have questions that could not be fully reviewed in the budget process. The City Manager will organize an in-house task force of department heads to review costs and contingency plans if service reductions are needed.
The Council and residents do not seek service reductions and hope that none are necessary. Our expectation is that we can remain steadfast in the event of another downturn. Due diligence requires that we are prepared, that we know the cost of changes, and that we have done our homework ahead of time. At the same time, we are working towards making our organization more cost effective. The additional review will be beneficial.
This is familiar territory. In 2001 and 2002, we encountered drastic loss in revenue because of an economic downturn. At that time, we established the Job Reduction Review Policy. This policy requires that every vacancy be reviewed by the City Manager to determine whether a position needs to be refilled or whether the work of that position can be merged or reorganized in a more efficient way. A number of changes have been made based upon this practice. When the economy improved, we did not rescind the policy. We have kept this practice in place as a standard operating procedure since it was established.
The Council is united. We take our responsibility to maintain the economic stability of our City government, control costs and property taxes, and provide quality services very seriously.
The City’s strong financial position is longstanding. For the last 13 years, we have had the benefit of the outstanding skill, expertise, and collaboration of City Comptroller Mike Genito.
Mike will be leaving us at the end of January in a change in direction of his career and a move to the world of academia. Mike will assume the position of Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Management at Pace University which is an outstanding program in public administration and where Mike has taught on an adjunct basis for a number of years.
Mike is a leader in his profession among governmental financial officers. All of our City Councils over the years have high expectations regarding financial reporting, information, and practices. Mike has met all those expectations.
When new accounting standards are phased-in for municipalities, we are usually among the first to make the transition. The number of financial reports we receive, the amount of information requested in the budget process, and the time we spend reviewing financial issues is far above the norm for local governments.
When we suffered from Hurricane Floyd, Mike mastered the complicated process of filing for funds through FEMA and other agencies. When we again sustained damage in the floods of 2007, Mike’s protocols for sharing information with FEMA and SEMO were vital in the competition for repair funds. He runs a modern Finance Department that is up to speed on technology and provides all of the services it does with three fewer staff people than it had a few years ago.
Mike has been a key part of our team. He also holds the title of Assistant City Manager. Pace University’s gain is our loss. On behalf of the City Council and the people of Rye we congratulate Mike on this new opportunity and thank him for his excellent service to our City.
Mike will assist the City Manager in the search process for a new City Comptroller, as will former City Manager Frank Culross, who was our Manager when Mike was hired. The Council is committed to maintaining the level of expertise and quality we have received from Mike’s service to this community.
Hard economic times affect the City government. In more significant ways, the financial downturn impacts Rye’s not-for-profits. Our many community groups are vital to activities in Rye. The City government partners with most of them in joint activities, events, and projects. To the extent that you are able, I ask residents to remember our local not-for-profit groups in your charitable giving and your volunteer time.
For 2009, we will continue the progress we have made on a number of projects and activities.
Our first responsibility is to continue to provide the basic services that residents expect: police, fire, public works, infrastructure, traffic safety, planning, and recreation. We have a skilled professional staff and superb department heads. They have been partners in controlling costs, providing services, and making the City of Rye one of the top municipal governments in the country.
Beyond what we do every day are the special projects and goals that we as a community undertake.
Our work on flood repair and mitigation projects will continue to advance. Work on the Elm Place brook wall is underway. Logistics with utility companies are being resolved so that the Theodore Fremd brook wall project can proceed, as well. We are awaiting approval of some final sign-offs on the Central Avenue Bridge project from state agencies. The dredging of the marina at the mouth of Blind Brook is nearing completion.
Flood mitigation projects will move forward also. The Sluice-gate project in Rye Brook is moving forward in the approval process with NYS DEC and with funding expected from Westchester County.
The Sluice-gate by itself is not a magic bullet. When it comes to flooding, no one project will resolve all of our issues. The Sluice-gate project will reduce the water level downstream about four feet in certain kinds of mid-level storms. Additional projects in the Bowman Avenue area are being vetted. The Army Corp of Engineers is looking at projects in Purchase that will provide additional benefits. Only through multiple projects, each adding lowered water levels or additional water detention, will we be able to markedly reduce our exposure in Rye.
My work on the County Flood Action Task Force and at the state level continue to allow our experience in Rye to be used to focus public policy towards better solutions and improved intergovernmental cooperation on flooding. We continue to receive significant support from our elected representatives at other levels of government on flooding issues. If you see Senators Schumer or Clinton, Congresswoman Lowey, County Executive Spano, Senator Oppenheimer, Assemblyman Latimer, or County Legislator Judy Meyers, please thank them for their help in supporting Rye projects.
Congresswoman Lowey has been the leading member of the New York Congressional Delegation on bringing federal resources to flood projects in New York. Andy Spano, by establishing the county flood committee and devoting $50 million towards projects, has shown his commitment. Without the past and continued support of other levels of government, no community could afford to address these issues on their own.
In our case, we continue to be successful in securing outside funds for much of what needs to be done. At the appropriate time, we will need to seek community support for borrowing in order to secure the local match of some of the projects.
We also need to work with our neighbors in Rye Brook and Harrison and win their further cooperation on flooding issues on Blind Brook and Beaver Swamp Brook where we are in dispute. The City of Rye government continues to be a strong advocate for flood mitigation and needs the help of our neighbors.
With the installation of the Boston Post Road Diet and the implementation of other safety improvements around the High School and Middle School, we have moved forward on the work of the numerous entities focusing on pedestrian and traffic safety. The partnership between the city, the schools, YMCA’s Activate America Committee, our own Recreation Department, Traffic and Transportation Committee, and our Trailways Committee has brought progress and an ambitious list of new areas where we need to improve pedestrian safety and safety in walking to school. This work must continue, but will need an accelerated effort to apply for a variety of outside grants to support our efforts locally. We need to match projects with relevant grant programs in order to move ahead on projects on Forest Avenue, Oakland Beach Avenue, and near Rye Neck High School. We need to involve neighborhoods in order to address their needs and concerns.
We are moving closer to approval of a lease with the Thruway Authority for use of the parcel on the Boston Post Road for an athletic field. The participation of user groups and residents in supporting the building of the field will be necessary.
Acquisition of the Bird property in cooperation with the Committee to Save the Bird Homestead is on the road to becoming a reality with the City serving as the successful applicant of a series of government grants. The local cost for this acquisition will be borne through private funds raised by the Save the Bird Homestead Committee. County Legislator Judy Meyers, Assemblyman George Latimer, and Senator Suzi Oppenheimer have been champions in seeking outside support to make this acquisition possible, as have been Westchester Land Trust and Audubon New York. The Save the Bird Homestead Committee who raised the private funds, the Bird family, and the late John Erickson have all worked closely together to make this acquisition possible.
The balance sheet at Rye Town Park is much improved with changes made in 2008, many at Rye’s suggestion. We still need to access the $400,000 in outside grants secured for the tower building to address long-deferred capital repair needs at the park.
We will continue to follow the issues in which we made progress in 2008. The Recreation Commission brought us a pilot program to address the issue of affordable use of the Rye Golf Club by Rye seniors. This is an issue that has been championed by John Carolyn. The Rye Golf Club Commission also offered a limited day membership category in 2008. The new effort by the Recreation Commission will be implemented this year. We will track that experience and the issue going forward.
There are always unexpected issues that arise. We continue to oppose efforts to build a highway tunnel from the Long Island Expressway to Rye, which was proposed in 2007.
Recently we learned of a proposal by the Coast Guard to withdraw responsibility for buoys in our waters. There is a tight deadline to comment to the Coast Guard and federal officials on this proposal. I will ask the staff to draft the appropriate comments for use by the City Council in opposing this change, which would shift the cost of the navigation buoy system to Rye adding thousands of dollars in expenses to our budget.
These are some of the projects and challenges for 2009. There are many other tasks and activities that are the focus of the City Council and of the City Staff. We thank Paul Shew, Scott Pickup, Mike Genito, Dawn Nodarse, and Kevin Plunkett for all of their efforts on behalf of the City.
As I noted earlier, we live in precarious times for our economy. We also live in a great community. The opportunity to serve in difficult times is a privilege. We are all committed to maintaining the stability and excellence for which Rye is known.
We owe much to the generations that came before us and the legacy they left us. We are dedicated to keeping Rye the special town it is with the appearance of a small New England village and the community spirit that binds us together.