Dan Hust | Democrat
Legislative Chairman Jonathan Rouis
Justifying their vote
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Sullivan County’s 2010 budget narrowly avoided defeat on Thursday in a 5-4 vote.
Legislators Jonathan Rouis, Ron Hiatt, Leni Binder, Jodi Goodman and Elwin Wood ensured its passage, while Kathy LaBuda, David Sager, Alan Sorensen and Frank Armstrong dissented.
LaBuda and Armstrong’s “no” votes were perhaps the most surprising of the afternoon, as they are two of the five-member Democratic majority on the Legislature.
“I could not in good conscience vote for this budget knowing everybody did not share the pain,” LaBuda explained, saying the Division of Public Works continued to suffer more staffing cuts than other departments.
“If our roads aren’t safe, lives could be lost,” she said.
Armstrong’s issue was with the budget talks.
“I think there should have been a lot more talked about and an eye much further out on the future,” he explained. “... We have to look in the county where the real waste is. We really didn’t have a lot of discussion on these things.”
Sager felt similarly, saying he was offered “limited input” by fellow legislators on the budget.
“This game of Russian roulette has got to end,” he stated, echoing a previous comment about always feeling like he operates in a “shotgun to the head” atmosphere whilst being asked to make major decisions.
Sorensen said his opposition to the $190.99 million budget was “because it is based on a flawed [solid waste] user fee.”
Though his specific concern is the $850 flat fee on mobile home parks no matter whether they feature 2 or 200 homes Sorensen said that the user fee (which will be on tax bills in January) raises the tax rate by 12 percent.
Coupled with the actual 5.84 percent tax levy increase in the budget, residents and businesses will see a near-18 percent increase in their taxes in 2010, noted Sorensen.
“And I believe people just can’t afford that,” he remarked.
Hiatt, however, felt the user fee avoided a direct 12 percent tax increase.
“I can tell you that just raising taxes is not the answer,” he said.
He was pleased that County Manager David Fanslau’s originally proposed budget was amended to cut 26 jobs instead of nearly 50.
“No offense to the county manager, but his budget just made me recoil,” said Hiatt, finding agreement from Binder. “... We put a lot of jobs back in that do a lot of important services.”
Among the restored positions: a senior 911 database clerk, a principal account clerk in the Treasurer’s Office, three social workers, an investigator and assistant district attorney in the DA’s Office, investigators for Probation and Family Services, two assistant county attorneys, five people in the Sheriff’s Office (including two deputies), four DPW workers, and the administrative assistant and senior account clerk/typist whom Public Health Director Carol Ryan said were crucial to her department’s future.
But that didn’t come without a price. While officials raised their sales tax revenue estimate for 2010 by $95,000 (citing an improved economic outlook), the original tax levy increase of 5 percent got bumped up to 5.84 percent.
Plus, union representatives continued to express displeasure with the process. Local 17 rep Todd Diorio warned legislators that the laying off of DPW workers at the soon-to-be-closed landfill might not be legal, as language in the collective bargaining agreement may require those workers to be employed with the private firm, IESI, just hired to export the county’s trash at $65 a ton.
Teamsters 445 rep Lou Setren castigated legislators for approving the addition of a deputy planning commissioner, though officials countered that it was a promotion of an existing employee who would retain her current duties.
Former Sheriff Dan Hogue also criticized the budget, feeling its cuts unfairly fell on the rank-and-file instead of the leadership.
“We’re top-heavy with management,” he observed, noting sadly that there are more employees inside the Government Center than out on the county’s roads. “... It’s the little guy that makes the wheel go ’round let’s try to keep those little people working.”
Nevertheless, the budget got enough of a thumbs-up to pass, albeit barely.
“This restores the positions that are vital,” explained Rouis, the Legislature’s chairman, who called it “one of the most difficult budget processes” he’d ever undertaken.
“It basically pitted department against department, commissioner against commissioner, and legislator against legislator.”