Sullivan County Democrat
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Dan Hust | Democrat

Legislators Leni Binder, right, and Jodi Goodman expressed concern over county's inability to supply services to its residents at Tuesday's Management and Budget Committee meeting.

Vowing to
‘do more with less’

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — December 3, 2010 — Sullivan County owns so many bridges – 398, the highest of any county in New York State – that legislators are seriously pondering either closing a few to save money or putting a “user fee” on every piece of property in the county.
“It’s not a threat,” Legislator Leni Binder remarked. “I think it’s just a realistic thing.”
Binder also thinks the county-run Adult Care Center in Liberty will eventually have to be privatized, due to exponentially rising costs.
“It’s just not possible to sustain what we’re doing in government anymore,” she lamented.
The grim occasion was Tuesday’s Management and Budget Committee meeting of the Legislature, which featured a parade of department heads who vowed to do more with less.
Legislators, however, felt the very way the county does business may have to change, thanks to the enormous fiscal pressures bearing down on it.
“The only way to reduce our costs is to reduce our services,” noted Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis, explaining that expense hikes are far outpacing revenue increases.
“So we need to lay people off. Is that what you’re saying?” questioned Legislator Kathy LaBuda.
Rouis and County Manager David Fanslau have in the past indicated layoffs will happen if unions do not agree to salary and bonus payment freezes.
But Tuesday’s discussions hinted at a future with a permanently smaller county government infrastructure – supplanted by a new array of private providers.
“Maybe we’re going to create a new group of entrepreneurs in the county,” mulled Legislator Ron Hiatt, “... unless people want to vote for a consistent 10 or 12 percent tax increase every year.”
Legislators seemed certain that a tax hike must be avoided at all costs this year.
Legislator Alan Sorensen, however, has advocated for finding further cuts instead of using nearly $7 million in surplus fund balance under Fanslau’s proposal.
Sorensen said department heads could find another one percent to cut “easily,” which could lead to nearly $2 million in savings, but his math was questioned by Legislator Jodi Goodman, who pointed out that only about $50 million of the proposed $191 million budget is discretionary.
The rest is state-mandated, which Fanslau said is at the root of Sullivan’s troubles (and every other county’s woes in New York).
He reiterated his oft-mentioned lament that Albany bureaucrats continue to saddle the county with mandated services for which little to no funds are provided.
Yet he also acknowledged that “we here in Monticello can’t do anything about it except to advocate for change.”
Can residents and businesspeople tolerate even deeper cuts?
“People must be willing to have these services cut,” said Rouis, “and to date – to a one – that has not happened.”
Then people need to change their expectations, replied Legislator David Sager.
“This isn’t the same government you had,” he stated, and it can’t be “with the costs we are facing in the marketplace.”
So if the only real option is slashing local services, will the public go for that – and will legislators endure the complaints and re-election ramifications?
The budget must be adopted by the end of the year – and then there’s 2012, which is expected to be even tougher.
“We have to change how we think, how we do things,” assessed Hiatt. “We have no choice.”

Family & Health Dept. feeling squeeze

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — When County Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis mentioned that county residents must expect cuts in service, it applied most to the Division of Health and Family Services. The workload in that department has tripled – with no increase in staffing, according to Legislator Jodi Goodman and Commissioner Chris Cunningham.
“The legislators are very concerned about morale in your department,” Goodman told Cunningham. “We’re in a crisis mode in that building at this point, I think. ... I’m not sure what we could offer you to help you through that.”
“It’s not money,” Leni Binder drily added.
Cunningham replied that legislators may have to seriously consider whether the county should even be directly providing human services anymore.
“We’re rapidly reaching that point,” he warned.
Indeed, it could involve even more than privatizing the Adult Care Center (ACC).
“[That’s] the kind of paradigm shift you guys are going to have to face,” Cunningham assessed. “... I don’t think those decisions are that far in the future.”
The ACC dominated the discussion at that point, with Goodman urging Cunningham to involve local private nursing homes in talks about the ACC’s future.
“It’s not ‘Do we want to stay in that business?’ To a one, I think we do,” Rouis explained. “It’s ‘Can we?’”
Employee benefits, he said, cost the county as much as individual salaries, and Medicaid reimbursement is far below patient care costs.
“As those of us in business know, if your cost structures aren’t competitive, you shouldn’t be in that business,” Rouis concluded.
Binder added that the escalating healthcare and pension benefits expenses for county retirees are sucking up more and more of the budget.
Kathy LaBuda, however, said it’s the county’s duty to care for its constituents.
“I think this body should do all that it can to keep the nursing home,” she insisted, arguing that taxpayers would likely agree to a one percent increase to accomplish such.
“It’s not enough,” lamented Binder.
For 2011 at least, the ACC will remain in county hands, and a task force is due to report to the Legislature about future options.
But legislators are still ironing out the 2011 tentative budget and are awaiting the unions’ response to its proposed wage/
bonus freezes.

Public Works Dept.
is stretched

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — At Tuesday’s Management and Budget Committee meeting legislators heard from department heads who are pledging to stretch their divisions’ budget dollars. For some, it will be harder than for others.
The Division of Public Works (DPW), for example, is finding itself unable to keep up with road and bridge repairs. While county funding has remained relatively constant, material and labor costs have increased quickly.
“The lines are not converging,” Legislator Alan Sorensen observed. “They’re going farther apart.”
A slew of in-office DPW activities have been delayed or eliminated, said Commissioner Bob Meyer, along with out-of-office projects like guiderail replacements, brush-cutting and bridge-cleaning.
“The buying power has diminished. The money doesn’t go as far,” Meyer told the Democrat..

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