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'Dire' is the word on county finances

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — January 18, 2011 — Legislator Kathy LaBuda was frank about a future featuring the two percent property tax increase limit proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“The county’s going to go bankrupt if that happens,” she told her colleagues at Thursday’s raft of legislative committee meetings.
And that’s just one of several financial hurdles possibly awaiting the county.
Treasurer Ira Cohen expects it will cost the county $1 million more this April to make the school districts whole (reimbursing them for any uncollected taxes), for a total of $18 million.
“And this is not the economic climate where schools are able to give us any leeway,” he reported to the Legislature.
So borrowing more funds is likely, he added.
Reimbursement rates for county positions partially paid for with state and federal funds have been falling, too.
“Get ready for them to decline extremely further,” County Manager David Fanslau warned.
“The economic realities are not the fault of county employees and are not the fault of county administration,” Fanslau argued. “It’s a national scenario, a state scenario, a regional scenario.”
Medicaid costs are estimated to jump by more than half a million dollars this year, he added – on top of all the other burdens from unfunded state mandates.
“Without mandate reform,” Fanslau told legislators, “you’re going to be faced with these situations, and in a more dire fashion year over year.”
To prove that point, Fanslau and Deputy County Manager Josh Potosek presented projected budget scenarios for 2012 and 2013.
Assuming no growth in taxable properties, the county would be facing an $8-$9 million budget shortfall by 2013 – under what Fanslau and Potosek termed “favorable” conditions.
The “unfavorable” scenario features a near-$24 million deficit in 2013, with a budget almost $20 million less than 2011’s.
“This isn’t a million or $2 million,” said Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis, who then paused. “... I don’t even have the right adjective to use for this.”
Keep in mind, added Fanslau, that a one percent increase in taxes will only give the county $486,000 more in operating funds.
Tiny bits of silver lining
Amidst the grave predictions, however, there was some good news.
Fifty-eight staff members retired this past year, said Fanslau, saving the county more than $2 million (though as Teamsters rep Sandy Shaddock noted, many of those now-vacant positions will remain unfilled).
Dept. of Motor Vehicle fees totalled $676,564.12 for 2010, setting a record, according to County Clerk Dan Briggs. Local transactions leave 12.7 percent apiece for the county, but Briggs said the state is trying to move everything online, possibly endangering that revenue stream.
Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther has introduced a state bill to allow all counties to legally include a local preference in their bidding procedures, with the thought that what’s good for local business will help the county’s fiscal situation.
And County Attorney Sam Yasgur was happy to announce a recent legal settlement netted the county $47,000.
A countywide court system?
Meanwhile, Legislator Jodi Goodman hopes a study will be undertaken – and welcomed by the towns and villages – to transform the town and village justice courts into a countywide system.
“Let’s investigate it and see how we could do it on a county level,” she told her colleagues Thursday.
In particular, Goodman sees savings in transportation, along with possible increases in fine collection.
“It makes a lot of sense,” noted Legislator David Sager.
“Go try to sell it,” cautioned LaBuda.
Legislator Leni Binder thought Pattern for Progress, run by Rock Hill resident Jonathan Drapkin, should lead the study, but she recalled that a similar effort to consolidate assessing duties turned “vicious.”
Indeed, the greatest worry was how such a move would be perceived – and opposed – by the 15 townships and six villages.
Cohen pointed out that the matter would be subject to a public vote – and “what hasn’t changed is the unwillingness of towns to lose their local representatives.
“I don’t think we shouldn’t do it for that reason,” Cohen continued. “I think we should.”
Legislator Alan Sorensen said grants would likely be available to aid in the transition.
“We should be looking at it,” agreed Legislator Elwin Wood. “... Things are different now. ... It shouldn’t become a hot issue.”
Goodman said she isn’t looking to make it a political matter – though it could easily become so.
“I’m looking for efficiency,” she said, then proffered what she feels is a better term: “performance improvement.”

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