RIOC Wrestles Budget, Keeps It Under Control For Now


You don’t have to cover your eyes to avoid looking at the hazards. RIOC’s budget is under control for now. That’s the good news from last week’s board meeting, the final for 2020.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

When RIOC’s board got together on ZOOM for the last time in 2020, they handled several messy issues, tabling the messiest. But straight off the top, CFO John O’Reilly handed the community some of its best news in months.

RIOC's budget under control means dealing with Tram revenue shortfalls.
The Roosevelt Island Tram’s crucial contribution to RIOC’s budget went off a cliff in 2020. And 2021 isn’t likely better.

O’Reilly, maybe the most valuable hire in RIOC history, called the budget under control. For now. It jelled because he moved some things around, that is, his team made up for losses in one area by trimming funds elsewhere.

As always with the state agency, the report lacked specifics, but in his years in town, O’Reilly’s shown that he knows his way around the financial books. If he reports RIOC’s budget under control, it is.

But he didn’t pretend he had a permanent fix.

Heading into 2021, nothing’s certain, but RIOC’s preparing…

As we reported earlier, the budget approved for the fiscal year starting April 1st, 2021, relies on an unlikely, even fanciful future. New York will be back to normal by summer, and Tram revenue will soar.

Neither will happen, and O’Reilly acknowledged as such. But not clearly, perhaps to avoid upsetting staff, which is already absorbing some cuts.

A statewide freeze on hiring, since the beginning of the pandemic, yielded unsought budget relief.

With a tentative nod at crises yet to come, O’Reilly said, “Shelton (acting president/CEO Haynes) and I have been talking.”

It was veiled, of course, because RIOC’s always veiled, but the implications were clear.

The two leaders are discussing contingency plans.

RIOC’s budget under control, but the months ahead are not…

Nobody knows what’s ahead for 2021, but the coronavirus vaccine rollout is worse than even skeptics imagined. With nine months at hand for planning, governments at every level failed at setting up ways for getting needles into arms.

And RIOC, along with other local governments, will suffer.

Locally, that means, most importantly, that Tram fares accounting for more than 10% of revenue will not offset expenses at prior year levels.

For the current fiscal year, ending in March, Tram revenue projects to a multi-million dollar shortfall. But nevertheless, RIOC’s next budget rests on a full return to normal fare income.

And every clearheaded person in town, including O’Reilly and Haynes, knows that won’t happen.

So, what gets cut? After eliminating the unthinkable, it pretty much comes down to staffing. O’Reilly and Haynes are loathe to say it out loud, but few alternatives exist.

In the meantime, RIOC’s budget is under control, and fortunately, steady hands are at the wheel.

Even optimists understand that the pain did not disappear on New Year’s day, but RIOC’s wiser heads didn’t either.

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