City of Olean faces budget decisions as COVID-19 impacts local economy

photo: Molly Williams/The Intrepid

By Nic Gelyon

OLEAN, NY — William Aiello hates the idea of losing government jobs to Coronavirus.

“When you cut jobs, you affect families,” said Aiello, mayor of the City of Olean. “That would be the last option.” 

But whether COVID-19 reemerges in Cattaraugus County or not, job loss may be a reality for Aiello. According to the mayor, Olean will enter next year missing around 31% of expected sales tax revenues, and about 20% of state-provided infrastructure funds. 

Aiello knows, however, that job loss cannot be counted out. 

If the city finds its financial situation worsening as early budget discussions begin for next year, layoffs could become even more of a reality. Some layoffs could possibly happen within the field of public safety.  

“Right now… if things don’t get better, if we don’t get some stimulus money, we may be looking at layoffs,” Aiello said to the Olean City Police Department almost three months ago. Those talks were halted, because the city had virtually nothing financially to offer the police officers’ union. 

As for other city employees, Aiello has deemed most workers essential.

“Do we stop sweeping the streets? You have to do repairs,” he said. “People have become accustomed to the services we provide.”

It remains to be seen, however, how these services will be provided if yet another COVID-19 outbreak occurs. And as county health officials have stated recently, that is much more of a reality than was once thought. 

“Are we going to shut the building down again?” Aiello wondered, speaking on the prospect of another outbreak. “Or do we go limited hours? We did 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and you could only get to the city clerk’s office… it’s a juggling act a lot of times.” 

The city is prepared to take steps to make up for lost funds, so that, hopefully, layoffs don’t happen. The first step, Aiello said, would be to cut some of those programs that aren’t essential to survival, but that many Olean residents still rely upon. 

“The first thing to go would be some of our programs… your youth activities and that are some of the first things to go,” Aiello said. “And then you get into, do we pick up leaves? Do we shut down the parks, so we don’t have to maintain them?” 

Many services are also relied upon by what Aiello said are the 20,000-plus people that commute to Olean for work every day. That number would include both government workers and industrial workers at companies such as Dresser Rand and Cutco. 

In an economy, workers tend to spend a significant amount of money where they work, depending on how much time they spend there. 

If another coronavirus spike does impact Olean, and businesses are forced to shut down again, the city will be put in a difficult place: Not only could workers be laid off, but workers that remain could have limited options as to where they could spend their money. 

Not helping the situation, some projects in Olean geared towards boosting the economy have been either delayed or put on hold. For example, the Hilton hotel under construction on Buffalo Street is set to open by the new year, according to Aiello.  

The hotel project, which should have broken ground around the time of last year’s postponed St. Bonaventure graduation, was delayed by problems buying materials.  

‘The suppliers shut down, and now they’re back to trying to fill their back orders,” Aiello said.  

State-maintained construction going on by Main Street in Olean has also been delayed, because the state has had to wait weeks at a time for the proper cement to finish the project. Known colloquially as “Walkable Olean II,” the project at Main and Front streets aims to make the city more accessible, thus drawing more people in and further boosting the economy. 

These projects have the potential to boost both jobs and sales tax revenues. But right now, their effects are dormant. 

It will be difficult, according to the mayor, to make up for the lost ground caused by COVID-19 solely by cutting different community programs. The numbers are just too large. 

And with questions already arising about the ability for the federal and state government to provide aid, and with projects like the Hilton and Walkable Olean II being delayed, the city is put in a difficult position. 

The city also can’t afford to pay government employees to sit at home if there is no work to do.   

So, the state of Olean’s economy seems to rely upon the status of state and federal aid. Economic stimulus money helped Olean earlier this year, to the tune of a 12 to 15 percent jump in sales tax revenue. But the next round of state and federal aid is either, according to Aiello, a “political football”— or is altogether not realistic. 

“There’s been bills introduced to get some relief, but nothing has come forward yet,” Aiello said. “At the state level, our state is at a deficit right now… I’m not looking to get any relief from the state.” 

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