Earlier this year, the city of Fulton was placed on New York state's list of fiscally distressed communities. Now it's the first municipality in the state to sign up for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's recently created Financial Restructuring Board. The ten-person board offers cities management recommendations and grants to help them implement financial changes and get back on their feet.
Fulton Mayor Ron Woodward, Sr., says the city's struggles are the result of several factors, including the loss of two large employers in the area.
"We've lost Nestle's," Woodward said. "We've lost Birdseye. The assessed value of the city, which you collect property taxes on took a severe decline. Nestle's used to be assessed at $10.5 million. Today, they're at $2 million. They're tearing the buildings down. You can't put a value on something that doesn't exist."
The city is scrambling to pay its bills and has already cut its city staff by more than 10 percent in the last five years.
"We used to have a four man engineering department, we have none now," Woodward said. "We had four guys in traffic. We have one. We've had a city clerk since we incorporated in 1903, now we've combined that position with the chamberlain. We've cut costs. We eliminated the ambulance contract at $140,000 a year that we used to have, cut $80,000 out of the library and as people retire we don't replace them."
Woodward also says rising benefits for city employees are playing a big role. The Financial Restructuring Board can serve as an arbitration panel in union talks, though both sides must agree to its participation.
"Obviously, the governor is on top of the state economy," Woodward said. "If he hadn't been, why would you create a fiscal restructuring board in your budget, unless you've seen the writing on the wall? I mean, you wouldn't do that unless you knew that you had cities that were struggling and in trouble."
Like Syracuse, Woodward says Fulton has a high percentage of tax-exempt properties, by his estimate about 40 percent, which forces homeowners to bear more of the city's tax burden.
In the meantime, Standard and Poor's has also taken notice of the city's problems, downgrading its bond rating from an "A" to a BBB+. Fulton has been working with operating deficits for the last three years.