Dan Hust | Democrat
Sullivan County Division of Public Works Commissioner Bob Meyer, right, speaks with legislators during Tuesday’s legislative hearings on the proposed 2010 budget. The grim faces explain the general mood of the daylong series of meetings..
Legislators, commissioners wrestle with budget cuts
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO A variety of county commissioners explained their departments and budget issues to legislators during hearings on Tuesday.
A fairly consistent message was that the 2010 budget is going to hurt.
“We’re going to have less people, less resources,” said Public Safety Commissioner Dick Martinkovic. “I guess we’ll call it ‘make do’.”
“The wait times and level of service that people have become accustomed to may change. I think that’s an unavoidable consequence,” added Health and Family Services Commissioner Chris Cunningham, noting that lines are already out the door of the Travis Building at the Social Services complex in Liberty.
Legislators listened to the commissioners’ presentations, then discussed priorities as they prepare for a vote on the tentative 2010 budget in December.
First up was Martinkovic, who oversees emergency response throughout the county.
“Where we’re going to get jammed up… is when we get a storm, when we have an equipment failure,” he told legislators. “... But if things happen, we are going to have to respond.”
He also is in charge of the Probation Department, where a brand new officer has just given notice, and the rest of the staff will soon have to deal with less paperwork help from temps.
Incoming District Attorney Jim Farrell said his staff, too, will have to deal with increased responsibilities, as current proposed staffing levels equal those of 1997 even though felonies have increased 29 percent since ’97, he explained.
“And that’s going to have a back-end effect,” mused Legislator Leni Binder, “because people will stay longer in jail [awaiting court dates].”
Farrell also decried a cut to the investigative force, which he said is uniquely well-trained to handle the many investigations his office must undertake.
“We’re not going to be able to do contractor fraud cases if we don’t have this investigator,” he predicted.
Plus his current position, chief assistant DA (created for him by his predecessor, Steve Lungen), is scheduled to be cut.
“I handled last year over 800 cases,” Farrell said. “… There’s going to be cases that don’t get the attention they deserve.”
“We’ve cut their investigator, and we’ve cut another DA,” Binder observed. “I don’t know how they move forward.”
“I think it would be a huge mistake to dwindle their resources anymore,” agreed Legislator David Sager.
But legislators are still faced with dwindling revenues and rising costs for those resources that remain in the 2010 budget proposal.
Cunningham’s presentation prompted a discussion about privatizing the Adult Care Center in Liberty, which all agreed will be a priority topic next year.
In the meantime, “everyone is working as hard as they can to redeploy, rethink and be creative,” Cunningham said, noting that his Department of Family Services staff has already found $2 million worth of savings for next year.
Sager expressed offense that Public Health Nursing Director Carol Ryan had met the county’s targeted budget cuts but was now being asked to cut even more. Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis replied that a Band-Aid approach is no longer sufficient.
However, advised Binder, “sometimes cutting costs more,” referring to the overtime that would be required to fulfill state health mandates.
And, said Cunningham, at some point in 2010, those mandates may force him to ask the Legislature to approve new staff hirings.
“A lot of this is largely out of my control,” he explained.
The Division of Public Works (DPW), despite Legislator Kathy LaBuda’s pleas, is facing 28 cuts in personnel 16 from not filling vacant positions, four of seasonal workers and eight full-timers.
DPW Commissioner Bob Meyer and his staff pointed out to legislators that staffing levels have dropped from 231 in 2006 to 172 in 2009.
The proposed cuts would drop that to 144, though Rouis reminded legislators that not all of those 231 positions in 2006 were filled.
Still, said Meyer, only one mile of the county’s 386 miles of roadway was taken off the DPW’s shoulders this year, while 15 percent in new floor space was added to DPW’s buildings and grounds duties (the Maplewood facility, the bus garage near the airport and the Fire Training Center).
Plus, the county maintains 400 bridges the highest of any county in New York State.
“The responsibilities we have really haven’t significantly changed [since 2006],” he remarked.
However, it was also pointed out that none of the proposed DPW staff cuts directly affect the road and bridges crew.
“And the division has tried to work to make its operation more efficient,” said Meyer, noting that snowplowing and road treatment are reduced during the times people are less likely to be travelling.
“No one is denying you’re doing much more with much less,” noted Binder. “I think the issue here is the whole budget.”
“We don’t want to hit you anymore,” added Sager.
Meyer did seem agreeable to privatizing the concession stand at Lake Superior State Park, which the county currently operates and on which it lost money this year.
“I’d rather have a caseworker working with an abused child than someone selling hot dogs,” agreed Binder.
Meyer also said he’ll be approaching Local 17, the snowplow drivers’ union, to see if members are amenable to eliminating a second person a “wingman” on plow trips, evidently a rarity already in most municipalities.
“They’re going to want something back,” observed LaBuda.
“The giveback,” said Legislator Alan Sorensen, “is saving jobs.”