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Rochester’s mayor was part of the “tin cup brigade” that went to Albany to testify before state lawmakers about the state of their finances and the governor’s proposed budget.

Richards said, “I’m forced to prove how poor we are.”

Richards, along with Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, pointed out Upstate’s cities have particular challenges. Their populations have fallen, their residents are poor, their pension costs are high and their property tax bases have shrunk. The cities didn’t get in this pickle on their own. Decades of suburban sprawl – aided by state policies – have caused much of this distress.

“If Upstate cities are to be successful…we must continue to invest in them…all of that costs money,” Richards testified. “If we back off, Upstate cities will deteriorate.”

Richards called the property tax funding structure an “18th century model for a 21st century reality.”


Astoundingly, downstate Sen. Liz Krueger asked whether Rochester has thought about an income tax, one that would tax people who work in Rochester, but use city services. New York City once had such a commuter tax.

“We’re very much different from New York City. We brag about how our commuting time is one of the lowest in the country. That’s the good news. The bad news is it’s very easy to get out of downtown Rochester….as a practical matter, the ability to go somewhere else is so much easier today…particular when the kind of industry we’re talking about is not locked into large industrial facilities that can’t move. As a practical matter, if we tried to impose a commuter tax or income tax on the city of Rochester, we would make things worse.”

When asked what he would propose instead, Richards said more state aid is an answer. He said it’s more “equitable.” The revenue comes from state income tax, Richards said, and the state already distributes it to schools in need.

“You’ve done it already. You’ve recognized cities like Rochester cannot pay for its school system,” Richards said. “The urban school systems have a demand that we cannot pay for.”

A local income tax would “further penalize people in need,” Richards said.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s response to all of this is that cities have to buck up. He threatened control boards for the cities that cannot make structural changes. The Albany Times Union reports:

“The answer is not an additional, ongoing subsidy on a fundamental economic model that doesn’t work,” Cuomo said. “The Rochester problem, or an upstate cities problem — if it was a corporation in a private-sector setting, you would be talking about restructuring. If the corporation does not restructure quickly enough, it goes bankrupt, and it goes to bankruptcy court. You need a restructuring here. The answer is not an additional, ongoing subsidy on a fundamental economic model that doesn’t work.”

Such an approach exacerbates haves and have nots in municipalities. It treats cities – the centers of regional civic and cultural life – as second-class citizens.

Watch the testimony here. It’s about 3:20 in.

Links of the Day:

– I thought the Democrats won their fight on Monroe Community College staying at Sibley. They were stupid to allow the county legislature to bond for a non-specific location when a super-majority was needed. The county has wasted no time putting forth legislation to buy the Kodak buildings. The Democrats have no leverage anymore. No super-majority is needed.

– School districts – mostly wealthy ones like Fairport and Pittsfordwant to drop out of the federal school lunch program.


– The Dutch queen is abdicating. People in Albany apparently care.

– The Syracuse Post Standard is teaching people how to read the newspaper online.

11 Responses to Commuter Tax? Really?!

  1. Funny. Cuomo has no problem subsidizing Buffalo, but wants us to file for bankruptcy.

  2. January 29, 2013 at 10:31 am Kevin Yost responds:

    The commuter tax is a good idea, but so is dissolving those cities into their surrounding counties, as Buffalo tried to do 10 years ago.

  3. January 29, 2013 at 10:47 am Matthew McDermott responds:

    Bankruptcy and/or a control board is one form of restructuring but what about a more metropolitan government structure?

    I know, Mayor Johnson lost the County Executive race because he dared to suggest this and a hundred years ago some people voted down combining the sheriff’s department and RPD so that’s why we should never bring it up again. But really, that seems like the structural solution to this – broadening the base. Not easy politically, but why aren’t we having that conversation?

  4. I do not know the expenses that the city has. I do not know their line by line budget. I did read in today’s D&C that Mayor Richards indicated the city spent 52 million on pension costs. Syracuse spent 20 million according to the article. How is that possible? Rochester is not 2 1/2 bigger than Syracuse, is it? Mayor Richards wants the State to raise the State income tax and distribute the added income to the city. The State says manage your own expenses, and you won’t need the extra money. Of course, we never get any specifics. We are left to speculate. As a result, my speculation is that Tom Richards cannot manage. I will once again bring up the Fast Ferry fiasco. He was chief counsel to Mayor Johnson. They bought a oversized ship, signed a guaranteed lease with Toronto, gave the port away to the developers for $1. Total idiots. I have no sympathy for Mayor Richards or his incompetent staff. The city should have a State appointed control board.

  5. OAJ – Tom Richards was NOT thecheif counsel for Bill Johnson. He never held ANY position (formal or otherwise) in the Johnson admn. He is the one who ENDED the fast ferry. How could you possibly be this ignorant?!?

  6. January 29, 2013 at 1:52 pm theodore e kumlander responds:

    this is the problem with brother andrew cuomo he thinks a goverment is a corporation and is not.

    people have to deal with the goverment. people do not have to deal with a corporation. Andrew cuomo is really a moderate republican, except there is no such thing anymore so we call him a democrat.

  7. I can see the property tax complaint. Look at Downtown alone, there is a large amount of County, Sate, Federal, and Non-profit land that pays little or no taxes at all.

    BUT, the City does have a bit of a spending problem. I think we spend a lot on luxury or frivolous items. A lot of the projects going on like rewatering Broad st, a Charlotte Marina, Durand Beach, etc aren’t things a “broke” city would be spending money on. If we can’t cover basics services, we shouldn’t be talking about spending MILLIONS on marina’s and canals to no where. That said, all of these would have regional impact, so I think it would be unfair to ask city residents to pay for them, when everyone wold enjoy them.

    I think a city/county metro-government would be a good idea. I think there would be a huge push back because in the streamlining of everything, people would have to give up their positions of power and redundant jobs would be eliminated. The other problem with some forms of metro government is even if the township is on board, they might not be able to get the independent district onboard (such as water, fire, library, garbage, sewer, etc)

    In summary, its a multi-faceted problem that will need a multi-faceted approach. The City does have some tightening of its belt to do, and needs to refocus on vital services. They do indeed have a shrinking tax base, and that is part of the problem. I think metro-government is a possible solution and will gain traction as the inner ring suburbs start to feel the same problems the city is having now.

  8. What is the problem really.
    A city that spends money it does not have, and then looks for others to pay its bills. Gee where have I seen or heard that one before?

    They want MCC at Kodak or Sibleys for 70M and then 4M a year when it and its student could all go to the main campus with no building needed. But the concept of one campus, is NEVER even publicly considered by either party. Just spend the money to be PC.

    Yea we know…they have no money and we need to pay more taxes. Our city can’t support itself and no one wants to live there.

    Yet, 130 miles from here by car, 60 by boat lies a city that has about 40 cranes right now for new buildings. They have the same climate, same cold, same clouds. They have no where the crime, better education rates in their city by far. Tens of Thousands walk their city streets at night, every night in 20 degree weather going to clubs, restaurants, plays shopping etc. Their mall in midtown thrives, ours gets knocked down. Their city been growing for 50ys, Not too long ago Rochester was bigger.

    Just what is the difference? Its simple its the people who live in their city that make it safe and welcoming for all.

  9. I don’t know how anyone can take Richards seriously when he hints that he is out of options when it comes to balancing the city budget. Here’s a guy who does everything he can to avoid making even minor decisions to save taxpayers money. One small example is Pier 45. This city-run restaurant has huge built in advantages – no sales tax on purchased supplies, no rent, etc. And it still manages to lose a quarter million or more a year. Here’s an idea,
    Tom – CLOSE IT.

    Want another suggestion? Follow the example of Providence, RI with Brown University and PILOT the University of Rochester. It’s about time they paid their “fair share” for city services. And do the same for the rest of the “non-profits” on city land. It’s not like the U of R is going to pick up and move. They’ve got plenty of dough. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304050304577377882290627666.html

    Cuomo is right. Richards lacks the guts to make the tough calls. Maybe a control board wouldn’t have the same reservations.

  10. U of R already provides $1 billion in economic development to the community. How much more should tthey be required to pay? No they won’t move to Henrietta but there is a relationship that needs to be respected. However this “College Town” development IS the last straw for me. If U of R wants to have a development like that, let them tap their billion-dollar endowment. Taxpayers should NOT have to pay for another boondoggle. Wat are they going to do? Move to Henrietta? Tell them to pony up the cost themselves. They are a private corporate entity that shouldn’t require a subsidy from the public.

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