By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Work on the county budget has begun in earnest, and the outlook seems just as grim as last year.
“The sales tax figures in 2011 do not prove encouraging for any growth in 2012,” assessed County Manager David Fanslau, speaking to legislators on Thursday.
While truly indicative sales tax numbers won’t be forthcoming until the end of this month, Fanslau predicted the projected county budget deficit for 2012 now stands at $11 million.
While that’s down about $2 million thanks to the expected savings from the coming self-health-insurance program, it’s aggravated by higher costs all around.
According to Fanslau, pension contributions are expected to rise by $800,000 next year and Medicaid by $550,000, yet the state’s overall aid to Sullivan County may fall by more than $700,000.
Add in contractually guaranteed salary increases totalling $2.25 million, and service cuts, even layoffs, are likely in the offing, unless legislators can find alternatives.
“We’re at minimal staffing,” Fanslau cautioned.
Legislator David Sager predicted he and his colleagues will have to vote to override the state’s newly mandated two percent property tax cap.
“We have to realistically think about what services we have to provide, and can we afford to provide them with that two percent property tax cap?” he questioned, labeling the cap “dangerous.”
“Locking yourself into two percent just because Albany wants it is a foolish thing,” he concluded.
Legislator Ron Hiatt hoped the unions would work with the Legislature this year.
“People don’t have to be laid off,” he assessed. “... Labor should always be at the table with us. ... We have to pull together, or we’ll be pulled apart.”
Fanslau said his goal is to ensure the county doesn’t spend more this year than last ($191 million) and adheres to the performance-based fiscal management he introduced into county government.
Legislator Kathy LaBuda insisted she and her colleagues meet with every department head and elected county official to get the info they need to make what will certainly be a painful decision.
“We will decide what will get cut and what will not get cut,” she affirmed. “That’s why we were elected.”
But Legislator Jodi Goodman noted the challenges emanating just from the state cuts and cost increases.
“You’re talking about a $2 million hit to us how do you balance that?” she wondered.
Fanslau replied that property taxes would have to increase 25 percent just to maintain the current level of services a scenario unpalatable to all.
“There’s another somewhat radical approach,” he added, noting that some counties are considering “civil disobedience” by not making Medicaid payments to the state in 2012.
While New York is only one of two states that puts the burden of Medicaid expenses on its counties, Fanslau acknowledged that the impacts of not sending in the payments could be severe.
“I would suspect the reimbursement chain would stop immediately,” he said, referring to the state and even federal reimbursements on various county expenses.
He also thought the state might not give Sullivan its portion of the sales tax the state collects on the county’s behalf.
Grants too might be in jeopardy, leading Fanslau to conclude the only way such a strategy could be successful would be if all the counties did it together an extremely unlikely proposition.
Sager recommended pressure be applied to NYS Senator John Bonacic and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, who represent the county in Albany, to at least reduce their own staffs and payrolls.
Legislator Leni Binder also suggested contacting federal representatives like Congressman Maurice Hinchey to force New York to stop putting the Medicaid system on counties’ backs.
Grahamsville resident Ken Walter, who regularly attends Legislature meetings, agreed that the county must find a way to provide services society demands, in spite of the burdens from the state.
“You can’t operate with a two percent millstone around your neck,” he remarked. “... You’re going to have to go outside the box. ... We can’t do it with two percent.”