Syracuse, New York

Syracuse is one of many cities in New York State struggling to close a deficit. This local news story about Syracuse follows the pattern of pretty much every other local fiscal crisis:

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The next mayor of Syracuse will preside over a city that will go broke unless significant changes are made, according to city budget forecasts.

Syracuse faces budget deficits averaging $23 million a year through 2016 – nearly 10 percent of what it costs to run the city. That means city government will burn through its $60 million reserve fund in less than three years, unless new revenues come in or services are scaled back.

Miner scrimped and cut to get by with less money during her first term. But the mayor has not publicly articulated a detailed plan for avoiding the fiscal crisis that she says is too big for the city to fix on its own.

The blame is put on pensions (and health care costs), and on cuts in state aid:

Here, in a nutshell, is the fiscal challenge for Syracuse: Since Miner took office, the cost of pensions and health care for city employees has increased by $22 million a year.

State-mandated pension contributions for city employees have skyrocketed since the stock market crash of 2008 depleted state retirement funds. After an employee retires, the city no longer has to make pension payments, but city health care coverage – the cost of which rises 7 percent to 8 percent a year – typically continues until the retiree hits age 65.

At the same time these expenses are rising, state aid, which represents about one-quarter of the city budget, dropped from $81.3 million in 2009 to $71.8 million this year.

Miner’s opponents in the mayoral election (which she won yesterday) perfectly embody the two responses to fiscal crisis (although the one on the left is often absent):

Long-shot mayoral contender Ian Hunter, the Conservative Party candidate, offers this solution: Let the city go bankrupt. Tear up existing contracts and start over with a leaner version of city government.

Another long-shot challenger, Green Party candidate Kevin Bott, suggests a different approach: Institute a progressive city income tax to raise more revenue, and demand that state leaders share a bigger cut of New York’s income tax receipts with Syracuse and other cities.

Although Syracuse isn’t one of the most stressed cities in New York, at least according to the Comptroller’s analysis, it fits the definition of the potentially-stressed city so important to the conservative narrative of impending municipal government apocalypse:

But stress is coming. For most municipalities, the financial crisis won’t mean a free fall into bankruptcy or a sudden shutdown of services, said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany, a conservative think tank. Instead, many cities will suffer a slow decline.

“If you look at some of these cities, you don’t see someone who’s on their deathbed, you see somebody who’s crippled,” McMahon said. “They’re not dying, but it’s not a great situation. They can’t get up on their feet.”

Read: What Mayor Stephanie Miner has done about Syracuse’s fiscal crisis, and what remains to be done | syracuse.com.