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State comptroller: Watertown boasts strong financial picture

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The state comptroller’s office gave the city of Watertown such a glowing fiscal report Wednesday that Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham took two large charts on its finances back to City Hall with him as souvenirs.

In a press conference at the Best Western, state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli praised Watertown’s financial stability and decisions that local officials have made to keep the city’s fiscal outlook so healthy.

Mr. DiNapoli was in Watertown as part of his 2013 Local Government Leadership Institute initiative to help local officials stay clear of financial crises. He also unveiled a nine-page fiscal profile of Watertown.

“I think it’s very encouraging, good news about the city of Watertown’s fiscal stability,” he said. “Some wise, hard decisions have been the key in the city’s health.”

The city has maintained a stable tax base, developed healthy revenue streams and built up rainy day reserves, he told a group of reporters. Some of the city’s fiscal stability can be attributed to the proximity of Fort Drum and shoppers heading south from Canada, he said.

But the City Council and city staff also have made the right decisions to keep the city’s fiscal path in the right direction, he said.

At the press conference, Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith agreed that city leaders have worked hard to reduce debt, keeping a healthy fund balance during times of “economic fluctuations” so the city could maintain its infrastructure.

Mr. Graham said it was encouraging to hear what the state comptroller had to say.

“I appreciate that you come to Watertown with an out-of-the-box, antiseptic and analytical look at the city’s finances,” he said, noting that the comptroller’s findings were corroborated recently by Moody’s Investor Services reaffirming the city’s bond rating of Aa3.

As part of his report, Mr. DiNapoli concluded;

n The city was able to reduce its debt from $7.9 million to about $4 million from 2001 to 2011.

n The general fund balance has ballooned from about $3 million in 2002 to $8.9 million last year.

n Revenue grew 4 percent on average annually from 2001 to 2011, compared with 3.4 percent for all cities in the state in the same period.

n The city has benefited from markedly higher growth in property values than other cities. From 2005 to 2010, property values increased 74 percent, compared with 30 percent for other upstate cities.

n Real property taxes accounted for only 13.1 percent of revenues, lower than the 25.6 percent share for cities statewide. Meanwhile, sales and use taxes accounted for 30.4 percent of its total revenues in 2011, compared with 20.5 percent for other cities in the state.

n Fort Drum’s direct economic development impact is $1.4 billion.

However, the comptroller’s report also highlighted several demographic challenges that Watertown faces. For example, its median household income of $37,514 significantly is lower than the statewide median of $56,951. More than 18 percent of families in the city are living in poverty, compared with 15 percent for all cities. The unemployment rate of 9.2 percent is higher than the statewide 8.5 percent.

Mr. Graham acknowledged those concerns, but he said the local economy should improve with the planned redevelopment of the former Mercy Hospital site and the Woolworth Building into housing and possibly retail space. Both projects will create jobs, he said.

After hearing the report, Mr. Graham asked Mr. DiNapoli’s staff if he could have the large charts displayed at the press conference showing how well Watertown has done with fund balances and reducing debt.

It has taken years to get to this point, City Manager Sharon A. Addison said.

“This did not happen overnight,” she said, crediting staff, council members and former City Manager Mary M. Corriveau.

So far, Mr. DiNapoli has completed similar in-depth reports on Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.

During his visit, Mr. DiNapoli also delivered opening remarks at the fifth annual Local Government Leadership Institute sponsored by his office. Joanie M. Mahoney, Onondaga County executive, was the keynote speaker.

The event focused on the state of local governments and strategies for coping with fiscal stress. It featured panel discussions with government leaders from across Central and Northern New York.

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