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February 20, 2013

DiNapoli: Syracuse's Fiscal Condition Challenged by Systemic Problems

The city of Syracuse is confronted by a large number of vacant and tax-exempt properties, low rates of home ownership and decreased home values, according to a report released today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. The rating agencies credit Syracuse for having a relatively strong financial position, but caution the city is susceptible to adverse economic conditions. The report is the latest in a series of fiscal profiles DiNapoli will issue on cities across the state.

While cities have historically relied on property taxes as a primary source of revenue to fund expenses, DiNapoli’s report noted Syracuse’s property taxes account for only 13 percent of the city’s revenue. The average for cities in New York is 26 percent. This disparity is due to half of the city’s property being listed as tax-exempt and 8 percent of property as tax delinquent. Further, nearly 11 percent of city housing units are vacant.

“Syracuse is suffering from long-term, systemic problems,” said DiNapoli. “Unfortunately, as the economy continues to recover slowly from the financial meltdown of 2008, communities like Syracuse are likely to experience more financial difficulties. Mayor Miner recognizes the need to be more efficient, more creative and more forward-thinking. Since taking office, she has confronted the city’s financial problems but faces an uphill battle in some areas.”

Similar to other challenged cities, Syracuse is relying more on sales taxes and fees to cover the cost of municipal services; with 25 percent of its revenue coming from charges for services such as transportation and utility fees, and 22 percent from sales tax. Syracuse’s revenue problems are exacerbated by growing fixed budget costs of the city and the dependent school district, a significant loss in population and a deteriorating industrial sector, which have all factored into chronic budget gaps.

The fifth-largest city in the state, Syracuse currently has the second-highest rate of families living in poverty (25.6 percent) and an unemployment rate (8.9 percent) higher than the state average (7.9 percent). From 1950-2010, the city lost more than one-third of its population.

Other findings in DiNapoli’s report include:

  • Syracuse has lost $4.3 million in state aid since the 2008-09 fiscal year;
  • The city has exhausted 53 percent of its constitutional debt limit and has $292 million in outstanding debt;
  • Since 2008, the city’s general fund balance has declined 37 percent to $39.5 million from $63 million; and
  • Expenditures in the city have increased at an average annual rate of 4 percent from 2001 through 2011.

In the coming months, DiNapoli will issue fiscal profiles on select cities across the state to further inform officials and citizens on some of the unique environmental and systemic pressures facing New York’s cities. As part of this effort, DiNapoli will also release in-depth reports on some of the issues that contribute to the financial pressures on local governments.

DiNapoli’s office recently finalized details of a new fiscal monitoring system that will calculate and publicize an overall score of fiscal stress for municipalities and school districts across the state. The ‘early warning’ system will identify those headed toward fiscal crisis and give local officials and the public greater opportunity to consider options for turning things around.

For a copy of the Syracuse fiscal profile report visit: http://www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/pubs/fiscalprofiles/syracuse.pdf.

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