By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO “I just feel we’re at absolute minimum staff.”
Public Health Nursing Director Carol Ryan was the first to say such at Thursday’s daylong Legislature meeting with department heads, but she wasn’t the last.
Indeed, that was a recurring theme as legislators listened to county government leaders explain how they’re doing more with less all part of the preparation of the county’s 2012 budget, which will be adopted by the Legislature later this month.
The goal: to avoid cutting services and staff without raising taxes beyond the state-mandated two-percent increase cap.
But to reach that goal, County Manager David Fanslau has carved a huge chunk out of the county’s fund balance (surplus) in his tentative $194 million budget proposal.
So legislators spent Thursday considering their options including the newly elected ones, who won’t take office in January but were invited by their predecessors to sit at the table and ask questions.
Here’s a few of the highlights of the daylong Management and Budget Committee meeting:
• The Office for the Aging’s idea to lower the budget line amount to reimburse volunteer drivers was rejected by legislators, who feared it would decrease the pool of available volunteers.
Legislators did, however, express interest in Ryan’s research into cutting preschool special education busing costs through Public Health, which pays $400 per bus run rather than what may be a cheaper per-child charge.
• Adult Care Center (ACC) Director Jim Galligan hoped legislators would approve streamlining the method the county uses to fill vacancies at the ACC, allowing the director to hire new staff instead of routing the process through a committee.
Typically, when an employee leaves, hiring a replacement can currently take weeks rather than days. Meanwhile, the center must maintain a state-mandated level of staffing meaning existing staff have to work on overtime to fill in the gaps.
Galligan and Teamsters union rep Sandy Shaddock added that the ACC suffers from a high rate of “callouts,” where already exhausted employees simply call out sick rather than serve overtime.
Shaddock endorsed Galligan’s idea as potentially reducing that problem.
• Despite having dropped from 17 to five staff members in five years, the Planning Department has found the means to reduce its 2012 budget request by 22 percent, Commissioner Luiz Aragon said.
The Center for Workforce Development, which operates out of his office, is not asking for an increase either even though Director Laura Quigley said the county’s “true” unemployment rate (counting the unemployed, the underemployed and those who’ve exhausted their benefits without finding work) hovers around 14 percent.
• District Attorney Jim Farrell said he’d love to have another assistant DA, “but I don’t see it working in the budget.”
He’s cut 17 percent off discretionary expenses but warned legislators that crime continues to rise and that his staffing is at a bare minimum.
• “We’re busier than ever,” said Veterans Services Agency Director John Crotty, crediting the surge to the recently unveiled FAVOR card that gives local business discounts to veterans.
But as a result, more veterans have discovered the services the agency offers.
“We’re right at the edge of being overwhelmed,” Crotty cautioned. “We need help.
“Oh, and I’d like a raise,” he joked, briefly infusing some laughter into an otherwise somber day.
• Auditor Angela Chevalier related that the county’s payments to outside vendors are reaching month-long delays, an increase from what used to be two-week lags.
As a result, added Legislator Jodi Goodman, the county has lost some vendors who can’t or won’t wait that long to be reimbursed for services.
• In response to a query from Legislator David Sager, Sheriff Michael Schiff confirmed that his deputies clock in “a lot of overtime” keeping roads open and responding to emergencies when Bethel Woods hosts concerts, even though those duties are split with the State Police.
Legislator Kathy LaBuda asked Schiff to provide those numbers at a future meeting, so the Legislature can ascertain how much the county spends on such costs for which Bethel Woods does not pay the county.
Sager also questioned the need for a patrol chief in the department, pointing out that such duties had been handled by undersheriffs in past administrations a thought seconded by Legislator Frank Armstrong.
Sager especially was unwilling to give a raise to the position after the retirement of the much-respected Art Hawker.
Schiff defended the position, which he created, as necessary, arguing that neither the sheriff nor the undersheriff are “the chief of police” and that both the jail and civil divisions have their own chiefs, as well.
• County Attorney Sam Yasgur came with only one request: to hire a part-time legal secretary to help the single full-time secretary and cover for her when she is out.
“I have no grants and no overtime,” he told the legislators, adding that he’s eliminated the use of outside counsel to only when necessary.
• County Clerk Dan Briggs was pleased to announce that his office runs in the black, partly made possible by temporarily taking over flood-ravaged Schoharie County’s motor vehicles department and providing services to downstate individuals and dealerships who’d rather avoid an otherwise lengthy wait at NYC offices.
He only hopes that people continue using the Monticello office rather than switching to online transactions. With the state DMV’s staffing reduced, Albany bureaucrats are pushing such Internet services, but the local DMV makes no profit off of those, said Briggs.
• Deputy County Manager Josh Potosek confirmed that most county employees, despite the county’s finances, are getting 4.5 percent salary increases.
That’s contractually due to unionized workers and is being provided to many non-unionized ones to maintain parity.
Fanslau added that the county clerk and county attorney are getting higher raises, as are two payroll clerks and the director of weights and measures, in order to bring them up to scale.