By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO October 6, 2006 For the first time in recent memory, Sullivan County’s proposed budget is forecasting layoffs.
Forty-one to be exact, with 142 positions eliminated through attrition (vacant positions which will not be filled). The new $204 million budget (including $22 million in interfund appropriations) is approximately three million dollars less than last year’s record $207 million budget, yet property taxes are being projected to rise three percent.
In a 14-page, detailed speech, the county’s new manager, David Fanslau, outlined an aggressive plan for the county to reign in its spending. “Sullivan County must establish a system of fiscal restraint,” he stated. “I plan to completely overhaul the financial management functions of county government, in an effort to realize a greater level of accountability and to provide the Legislature with the financial tools necessary to monitor the fiscal health of the county on a timely basis… The county must hold back its spending,” he said.
DPW Hit Hard
Other departments seeing slashes were the Department of Public Works. Road paving will be limited to ten miles this year, no new equipment will be purchased and all building preventative maintenance will be eliminated.
Other victims of the county’s fiscal crisis will be economic development agencies such as the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development and the Sullivan County Visitor’s Association, which were stripped of direct funding in this year’s proposed budget.
The Visitor’s Association will be expected to generate its funding from the hotel occupancy tax. Fanslau is pushing the county to ask state representatives to increase the tax, as he is the sales tax. County legislators have been pushing for the increase in the sales tax for one year now, and relied on it for the 2006 budget, which ultimately resulted in millions of dollars in less revenues when state representatives refused to carry their request. Fanslau said he has still not been given an accurate figure as to how deep the shortfall actually was.
While he acknowledged the sales tax may be views as a regressive tax, Mr. Fanslau believes the sales tax is the fairest way to make up for 20 percent of the county’s property being tax exempt.
The County Museum will be closed between October and May. The Fort Delaware Historic Property will only be open on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Some departments saw their budgets restored after initially being cut by the county this year when the sales tax hike did not go through (although New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther restored hundreds of thousands of dollars for county agencies which were cut). Cornell Cooperative Extension will receive $400,000 in funding and the Soil and Water Conservation District will receive $134,000. The Community Action Commission and Sullivan County Head Start will see their funding returned at $30,000 and $34,000 respectively.
Cutting Back on Consultants
One of the major focuses of Fanslau’s speech was to put a limit on the use of consultants by county departments. Consultants have been commonly used throughout the county. Fanslau stopped short of calling on the legislature to curb its use of consultants, which has been frequent and expensive over the years. He said the consultants currently being used now for the jail and financial planning, are all critical. Fanslau would like all spending on consultants to require his approval.
“I am recommending that the Legislature authorize the County Manager to implement a new policy requiring prior approval for the utilization of outside consultants that are funded in this budget. There will be an effort to minimize the use of consultants and carry that minimization forward to the 2008 budget,” said Mr. Fanslau.
Victim of Rising Costs
The County Manager laid the blame for the rising property tax hike on stagnant state aid, increasing health care costs and an increase in employee benefits. He also warned that the county’s fund balance was low, placing in danger of hurting its credit rating and adding millions of dollars to future projects such as the new jail and a possible expansion of the landfill. County Treasurer Ira Cohen has also complained about the fund balance being too low, creating potential cash flow issues.
Among Fanslau’s plans to improve the fiscal condition of the county government, is the formulation of a capital planning and budgeting committee in order to develop a multi-year capital plan. He also wants to institute a contingency and tax stabilization reserve fund, especially if the sales tax increase is approved. He would like to implement Sullivan County’s 20/20 Plan as the county’s strategic plan, which will reflect benchmarks for funding of the county’s goals. The plan should be updated bi-annually in order to give the manager legislative priorities. E-government and E-commerce should also be explored, he suggested.
He also called for a comprehensive report on the finances, missions, goals and objectives of the county’s agencies.
Developing an economic master plan, was another one of his goals outlined in the speech. Utilizing the county airport was mentioned as well.
As for the landfill, which has been eating up a lot of the county’s budget and the majority of its debut, Fanslau suggested another round of tipping fee increases may be necessary to support its operations.
The layoff and attrition plans will be developed by Personnel Commissioner Pamela O’Rourke, stated Mr. Fanslau. The staff cuts will be spread out among the various departments. No department was targeted more than others although the Department of Public Works has many seasonal employees which were easier to spare. But Fanslau said it was still possible to avoid layoffs if more people retire. More changes to the budget are likely. Budget committee meetings will follow until the adopted budget is ratified in December.
Rodney Gaebel, Republican Minority Leader on the Legislature, said this was the first time in his 14 years as a legislator and member of the Board of Supervisors, that layoffs seemed certain. Twelve years ago, layoffs were proposed when the county faced a $10 million deficit. They were avoided by the implementation of the county’s importation of garbage to its landfill.
“It’s a tough budget in the light of the fact that we don’t like to look at layoffs as a tool to reduce the budget,” gabel said. “Fiscal responsibility is the key. It will be interesting to see if the policy making board (legislature) has the backbone to stick to the plan. That is the missing link at this point.
Added Gaebel, “It’s going to be a long year, a tough year. I look forward to the challenge.”
In prepared comments, Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Chris Cunningham used the moment to attack prior administrations as lacking “Strong internal leadership with an eye on the future.”
Mr. Fanslau, he stated, “has brought his professionalism and experience to the table during the creation of this budget, and as a result we now have a proposed budget that takes into account our current financial constraints, but also begins to prepare Sullivan County for the future.
“No one wants to cut programming or lay off workers, but in the absence of revenues that would have resulted from the proposed sale an hotel occupancy tax increases, the County needed to seriously examine its operations and find ways to trim back its expenses,” added the chairman.