Revenue will be flat and expenses will continue to rise if Williamsport doesn’t make a course correction for the next five years.
That was one of many assessments of the city’s financial health given to the city council Thursday in a study by EConsult Solutions Inc., a Philadelphia-based firm hired by the city under a contract signed a year ago.
The contract was valued at $64,625, but the city cost him $19,387 thanks to a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) Financial Strategic Management Planning Program.
This program provides appropriate grant funding to help communities develop comprehensive multi-year financial plans and set short- and long-term financial goals.
Mayor Derek Slaughter said some of the study’s concepts were initiated and others can be proposed immediately.
There is no cap or end to the available support, and the state covers 70% of all project costs, while the city is responsible for 30%, he said.
opportunities and challenges
“It’s encouraging how you work together” As council and administrator, Steven Wray, the company’s senior vice president and director, who served as policy director for Lt. Governor and Acting Governor Mark Singel, he praised the city for using its creativity and analyzing and prioritizing projects.
The study, he said, is interesting because it comes at a time when city officials are considering how best to spend America’s $25.4 million bailout money on various projects, he said he.
Wray pointed to the value of investing ARPA in the land bank, parks, flood levee and recreation. He said “These are long-term strategies.”
He cautioned city leaders and the community not to figuratively rely on these ARPA dollars “Just patch holes”, but keep investing, find cost-saving economic developments, and use those funds to encourage and branch out investments into the future.
EConsult Solutions Melissa Wright, Associate Director of the company, presented the main part of the study. As highlights, she noted that the city was able to maintain fiscal stability through a combination of tax rate increases and cost-containment strategies.
The combination has been able to maintain a relatively healthy financial position.
“It is not an absolutely dire situation and there is no need for an urgent financial plan under DCED standards, but challenges lie ahead.” She said.
In recent years the city deficit has necessitated transfers and the property tax credit has been used as a tool to do so “Compensate for any stagnation that occurs.”
One of the major cost drivers remains pensions, which weigh on the operating budget and are growing faster than income.
An annual budget deficit and a worsening budget balance will continue unless new sources of revenue are identified, as spending increases and revenues do not decrease but remain relatively flat.
Without intervention it will be a “growing structural deficit” She said.
A conservative goal
The firm recommends that the city maintain a fund balance greater than or equal to zero.
The initial interventions are not recommended as are the large-scale plans such as regionalization or the possibility of cost sharing or contract negotiations.
They are not represented in the analysis, Wright explained.
Instead, the key findings have highlighted ways in which projects can be implemented immediately to combat the city’s declining population and its ailing housing stock — two key factors slowing revenue growth.
Additional pressures on revenue growth include staff shortages and proposals have been made to address these in the areas of community and economic development, finance and recreation.
“That would create an opportunity to generate revenue,” said Wright.
The COVID Factor
The virus remains in different variants. The city needs to be flexible and adaptable, with the ability to envision what might happen next and envision the future before it could happen in terms of the impact of COVID-19.
The city is well positioned from a geographic perspective to make economic improvements. Care must be taken to reduce labor costs, although this is never easy and does not happen overnight.
The audit shows that a significant portion of the overall fund budget is impacted by labor costs. The city has knowledgeable employees and it is important to retain that expertise and recognize that sometimes these employees are just one employee working in a specific department.
Consequently, the city must be prepared and have plans in place to replace departing and near-retirement employees.
The firm praised the city’s plan to invest some of the federal COVID relief into efforts that can return dividends, such as However, the city must advocate for itself and lobby Lycoming County for a reassessment to fully recognize the value of the real estate investment and convert them to taxable parcels, as this will be done without a county tax reassessment “You don’t get the value” according to a study.
Green spaces and parks and more business friendly
Studies used by EConsult Solutions show that apartments located near green areas or parks have a property value premium of 7 to 9%. “These properties are worth more” said Wright.
The company wants the city to make its government operations more business-friendly by modernizing and investing in software and systems that enable transactions and business without individuals having to physically go to an office.
Responses from the city administration
in the finance committee and in the council meeting
Slaughter said the city council had begun reviewing the council to find a number of these suggestions in the study. Among them is a plan to add computer software to provide “real-time” data on the city’s finances for use in human resources.
Council President Adam Yoder asked company officials what the proposed timeline would be and how it would fit together in a package.
It can start once the Council has outlined some priority projects. Yoder stressed his appreciation for the study and that he raised some of those concerns about revenue growth several months after the pandemic began.
To that end, council member Liz Miele, chair of the finance committee, said she would hope the administration would not allow some previous plans that for one reason or another did not fully materialize and were proposed months and years ago that would fit in nicely Strategy to advance, languish and collect dust.
Aspects and community surveys conducted to create a park master plan could be reviewed and used in various forms that would make sense today and be incorporated into future economic development strategy.
Yoder repeated her suggestion. The city should draw up an economic development strategy and list quantifiable items and projects that it can prioritize now rather than later, Miele said.
Such a strategy will help the city seize this opportunity.
In total, “We are on the right path” said Miele.