By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO “We are at a point where we are presently at minimum staffing ... to provide the level of services the county currently provides,” County Manager David Fanslau warned legislators on Thursday.
Fanslau has begun the 2012 budget preparation process, and he’s estimated the state’s continued predilection for unfunded mandates will necessitate a 6.5 percent tax hike.
Yet the state has capped property tax increases at two percent, and only a majority of the County Legislature (at least six of the nine legislators) could overrule it.
While such a vote may be likely as the county is facing a $13 million deficit next year, legislators on Thursday were only starting to see the whole picture.
Fanslau aims to paint as complete a picture as possible, asking commissioners and department heads to supply details on the impacts they’ll suffer if, as he has requested, there are no increases in any department’s budget (save for contractually guaranteed raises and benefits).
While the county is seeing some year-to-year increase in sales taxes, Fanslau blamed the state for most of the county’s financial woes.
Indeed, if the state took over Medicaid expenses like 48 other states do he estimated the county would save $21 million.
“That would solve our budget issues,” Fanslau observed.
He showed a letter from NYS Senator John Bonacic that claimed the property tax cap legislation came with mandate relief, but Fanslau and legislators deemed it mostly “window dressing” that wouldn’t help counties and wouldn’t truly wean New York government off of its high taxes.
“I see this whole debacle ... as putting counties at risk for bankruptcy,” observed Legislator Leni Binder.
Fanslau didn’t necessarily share that concern, but he conceded that counties may soon simply become conduits for state programs, rather than providing their own services.
Legislator David Sager advocated for a proposed local law to override the property tax cap as a pre-emptive action.
“We’re not saying we’re going to do that,” he explained. “... You just don’t want to pigeonhole yourself into nothing.”
The county is also considering illustrating a breakdown of mandated-versus-non-mandated expenses in the tax bills property owners receive.
New Vehicle, employee
Despite the lamentations over fiscal issues, legislators unanimously supported buying an armored car for the Sheriff’s Office and hiring another employee for the District Attorney’s Office.
Sheriff Michael Schiff said he’d been thinking about buying an armored vehicle ever since Deputy Cyrus Barnes had nearly been killed by gunfire while responding to a call in Narrowsburg a few years back.
“With what’s happening in Monticello and surrounding areas,” he told legislators, “this is something we’ve wanted for quite a while.”
Orange County has one stationed in Newburgh, but Schiff envisioned a Sullivan County version being able to aid neighboring counties and police departments, as well.
The $200,000 cost of the vehicle will be covered by a federal grant however, the county must first lay out that money, then get reimbursed.
Fanslau expressed concern over the county’s cash flow as a result, but minus absent members Frank Armstrong and Kathy LaBuda, legislators convened an emergency meeting in order to immediately authorize the sheriff to move ahead.
“I believe just its presence will also become a deterrence [to crime],” said Binder.
The vehicle should be delivered in about three months.
Legislators also unanimously agreed to let District Attorney Jim Farrell hire another investigator to aid in the backlog of cases and increased workload his office faces.
The funding for the full-time position is already budgeted, though Fanslau continues to push legislators to freeze all hiring.
A vote of the full Legislature will be required on that position this week.
SCCC budget presented
Sullivan County Community College officials presented the college’s 2011-2012 budget to legislators on Thursday.
The $16 million budget will be the focus of a public hearing on August 18 at 1:40 p.m., just prior to the full Legislature meeting inside the Government Center in Monticello.
Copies are available for review at the Government Center and SCCC.
New CCE leadership
Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) educator Amanda Speer introduced legislators to her new boss for at least the next six months.
Ulster County Extension’s executive director, Lydia Reidy, has been hired by Sullivan County’s Extension Office to lend her and her staff’s expertise.
Sullivan’s CCE has been unable to find a permanent leader for more than a year, so Speer said Reidy and company will spend time in the Liberty office two to three days a week.
Reidy expressed enthusiasm for the additional duties, noting her family has long owned property in Liberty.
Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis confirmed on Thursday that the county must redraw the lines of its nine legislative districts.
The 2010 census showed enough shifts in population to make the change necessary, as each district must encompass the same amount of residents.
The process is often rife with politics and is complicated further by the fact that the 1,000+ inmates in the two state prisons in Fallsburg and Woodbourne can be but don’t have to be counted as residents.
Even those districts that didn’t see any major population change will be affected, said Real Property Tax Services Director Lynda Levine, noting the “ripple effect” induced by redistricting.
County Attorney Sam Yasgur said the changes will have to be made between this fall’s Legislature elections and the next one, four years from now.
The return of Re3
The Re3 Group returned to visit legislators on Thursday, despite having been gently rejected in the past.
Some legislators don’t believe the county generates enough trash to make Re3’s unique steam autoclave recycling process viable, but Re3 Vice President Drew Gorman insisted that setting up shop on four acres near the county landfill would benefit his company and the county.
“The bottom line is this process is a huge moneymaker,” he promised.
Legislators like Alan Sorensen (in whose district the landfill sits) were dubious, if not outright opposed, to the $47 million plan to turn garbage into cellulose fiber, while others, like Sager and Ron Hiatt, urged reconsideration.
Re3 has a prototype plant in Ireland but nothing yet in the U.S. Gorman said he’d put up a performance bond to ensure the county wouldn’t lose money in case of failure, but all he was given by legislators was another invitation to come speak in September.