As regular readers to this blog may know, I have something of a soft spot in my heart for my hometown of Batavia, New York (and in other news, the Pope is Catholic). So it should come as little surprise that I tend to keep an eye on the local newspaper, and online newspaper websites from a distance.
Thursday’s lead story in the Batavia Daily News fairly jumped right out of my computer screen, and smacked me in the face. Here it is in Bold Font for effect
“Consultant: Self image is city’s No. 1 challenge”
To summarize, the city council has recently hired an outside consultant to study the city, and come up with ways to improve it’s socio-economic condition. The resulting report will be presented in 6 weeks, but on Wednesday evening, the consultants presented their findings to the city council, and local business leaders. The key finding? “Despite its many positive attributes, the city has one major flaw. Many of its residents have a negative perception of the place, consultant Charles Buki said.”
So the real problem is the lack of positive thinking? Needless to say, this has stirred up something of a controversy in town. Since I’ve nothing better to do that pontificate from a distance, I’ll go ahead and add to the cacophony of opinions.
As I’ve said many times before in the stories that I have told here, I was born with an inherent understanding that everything around me was a lesser version of what had come before. I would like to be able to point to one specific event that led me to believe it, but there are so many small anecdotes of life in 1970’s Batavia that it would be hard to pick just one. So I have chosen to highlight just one small example, which I have also come across in recent weeks while reading the Daily News, a blog entry by editor Mark Graczyk highlighting the history of the Sylvania Television Plant. Here’s a link to the Daily News front page, for March 20, 1954
Some excerpts from Mark’s blog entry that summarize the story:
“The Sylvania plant expanded three times between 1954 and 1969 and the future seemed bright for the facility and its hard-working employees.
Then rumors started to circulate that Sylvania wanted to move all or part of the Batavia factory’s manufacturing work to North Carolina. At first the rumors were denied but in October 1970, the company announced that the color production line was moving to Smithfield, N.C.
A total of 150 workers were laid off. Before the end of the year, 200 more workers were let go.
Things went downhill from there. Finally, in November 1976 the company announced the end of production in Batavia. All assembly work ceased. The plant maintained a small office staff for a few years until the entire facility closed for good in the fall of 1980.
Batavia’s beloved Sylvania factory, once teeming with hundreds of employees and a major player in television set production, was now just another empty factory building.”
It is the collective memory of events like this that have led the local community into their current negative perceptions. As the consultants point out in this excerpt from the Daily News article:
“Batavia’s once prosperous, industrious city is a ghost to many who remember the good old days and want to go back to them, Smith said. It’s time to come up with a strategy to capitalize on the city’s strengths and move forward.”
I couldn’t agree more with that last statement. Yes, the past has kicked us hard in the gut, but it is time for the city to move forward and focus on exploiting the city’s strengths. I doubt that many people would argue with that. The big question is “How?”
The challenges facing Batavia are the same as those facing small towns all over Upstate New York. An aging populace, an increasing tax burden, and a declining tax base. Here are the ugly facts:
New York’s State and Local Tax Burden Second-Highest in Nation
During the past three decades, New York’s state and local tax burden percentage has ranked among the nation’s highest, currently estimated at 12.1% of income (2nd nationally), above the current national average of 9.8%.
New York Property Taxes among Nation’s Highest
New York’s local governments collected $1,890.70 per capita in property taxes during fiscal year 2006, which is the latest year the Census Bureau published state-by-state property tax collections. New York is one of the13 states that collect no state-level property taxes. Its per capita property tax collections in FY2006 rank 5th nationally.
Federal Tax Burdens and Expenditures: New York is a Donor State
New York taxpayers receive less federal funding per dollar of federal taxes paid than the average state. Per dollar of Federal tax collected in 2005, New York citizens received approximately $0.79 in the way of federal spending. This ranks the state 42nd lowest nationally and represents a decline from 1995, when New York received $0.87 per dollar of taxes in federal spending (ranked 40th nationally).
The only tax controlled by local government is the property tax. Property tax bills increase for a variety of reasons: bigger budgets are adopted, revenue from sources other than the property tax shrinks, the taxable assessed value of the assessing unit changes, or the tax levy is apportioned differently.
As Federal and State Aid have declined, the difference has been made up by increasing the property tax burden. So, why not just cut the budget and the taxes?
They have been cutting budgets for years, but unfortunately, the government infrastructure (think roads, schools, nursing homes) was built for a different population demographic. This saddles the government with high expenses just to maintain current services. This is where the decades long decline has really hurt. As the jobs have left NY, the population of working age people has declined. This has led an increasing % of elderly residents as the baby boomers have aged.
To quote another recent article from the Daily News on budget cuts at the County Nursing home:
The 2010 census shows a 16-percent increase in the over-60-year-old population in Genesee County. The census bureau also estimates that the population over 85-years-old, which is the most expensive to serve, has jumped by 33 percent in Genesee County the past decade
The 2000 federal census predicted that Genesee County will have 20,000 senior citizen residents by the year 2030. That is a 77 percent increase over 30 years, largely because of the aging of the post-World War II generation of baby boomers. The need for services to the elderly is increasing.
Another quote from the article:
“Demographics don’t bode well for city housing, which has 25 percent of property owners at least 65 years or older who may soon be departing to a retirement community and either selling or renting out their homes. Another 25 percent of properties are three to four units each. Those are issues that need to be addressed, he said.”
The City, indeed the whole County, is caught in this demographic vise. The aging population is going to require more government services, not less. And at the same time, their contribution to the tax base is decreasing. The government can’t cut the budget fast enough to keep up with the decline in the tax base. They are already consolidating schools as fast as possible. Is it any wonder that people are depressed?
The conclusion of the article:
“But they didn’t come to the meeting with all of the answers, Boehlke said. In fact, he believes the group itself has them. There needs to be a conscious plan to engage one’s neighbors and celebrate the city’s assets. It’s crucial to make some kind of move, Smith said, because the domino effect begins with a negative image and people moving out of the city and ends up with declining property values. It could be a “consistent downgrading of the community” if no action is taken to rectify the problems now, he said.”
Self image alone will not save Batavia. Nothing short of a miraculous economic recovery will do it.
Batavia is not dead yet. It still has assets that many communities would kill for. There is an active and engaged populace, and community service organizations. These are the resources that the city will need to rely on to rebuild. Relying more on the government to fix things is not the answer. Salvation must come from the private sector. Energy, and creativity, and lots of hard work are the answer. There is no monorail.