By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO The first of two hearings on the county’s $194 million 2012 tentative budget elicited criticism on Thursday.
Surprisingly, the very first comment advocated for a tax hike.
“I think the tax rate has to be increased ... because one day we’re going to wind up with no money in our pocket,” stated Grahamsville resident Ken Walter, a fixture at virtually every County Legislature meeting of late.
Walter faulted the budget’s proposed use of more than $6 million in surplus county funds, known as the fund balance. Slightly over $4 million of that amount is being used to avoid layoffs and service cuts while keeping the property tax increase beneath the state-mandated two-percent cap.
Walter fears that future budgets won’t have those funds available, leading to a county in even more dire economic peril.
He found support from the county treasurer, Ira Cohen, who called the use of fund balance poor fiscal practice.
“The only way you’re going to find revenue next year is by double-digit tax increases,” Cohen warned.
He also criticized the Legislature’s lack of fiscal policy discussions, advocating for a budget formation process that begins far earlier (thus allowing time for deeper discussions).
Narrowsburg resident and retired county employee Star Hesse felt the proposal to raise legislators’ salaries by $1,000 this coming year was inappropriate and insensitive.
“I don’t see the sacrifice that was pledged to after the election,” she remarked. “... Small as they [the raises] may be, you lead by example.”
Legislator Kathy LaBuda explained that legislators’ salaries are set at the beginning of their four-year terms.
“I’ve given my raise back five times,” she stated, adding that any other legislator is welcome to do the same.
She pointed out that legislators did not ask for the raise but that County Manager David Fanslau put them in the proposed budget because most other county employees were getting raises, as well.
Legislator Ron Hiatt said the philosophy is that legislators should be treated no better or worse than the rest of the county’s workforce.
“The point is,” he explained, “none of the rank-and-file took a reduction.”
He did add, however, that “I myself took a 20 percent reduction in my salary this year.”
Teamsters Local 445 union rep Sandy Shaddock agreed that the legislators’ raises are fair, but she decried the 22 percent raises being given to two payroll clerks whilst other clerks are getting the contractually-required 4.5 percent increase.
“It’s not fair and equitable,” she remarked, advocating for across-the-board raises rather than the scaling method in use now.
Those wishing to comment on the county budget will have two more chances to do so: at the second public hearing today (Tuesday, December 13) at 5:15 p.m., and this Thursday, December 15 at 2 p.m., both at the Government Center in Monticello.
Copies of the budget are available online at www.co.sullivan.ny.us or by contacting the Legislature Clerk’s Office at 807-0435.
The Legislature is expected to vote on the budget’s adoption at this Thursday’s meeting, though it has until December 20 to do so.